Ben Johnson

These days sprinters are built like football players and they are almost always the ‘showmen’ of the track. Posing and flexing. Preening and jawing.

Standing 5-foot-7 and weighing less than 150 pounds, he didn’t look imposing. He didn’t pose, flex, preen or jaw. But there was a time when the Columbia Comet — Benjamin Washington Johnson — was the world’s fastest human, defeating the likes of world recordholders Jesse Owens, Eulace Peacock and Ralph Metcalfe.

Born in Virginia in 1914, Johnson lived in suburban Philadelphia as a youth before his family settled in Plymouth, Pa., in the coal-mining region during the Great Depression. And it didn’t take long for Johnson to make a name for himself and rally the community.

As a high school junior in 1932, Johnson won both the 100- and 220-yard dashes in state record times, clocking 9.8 and 21.4, respectively. This was on a cold, rainy day in Altoona. The weather likely played a role in his long jump performance — which he won at 21-1 1/2 — but which was well behind his personal best.

He qualified for the Olympic Trials in California, but his family was unable to fund the trip. The town of Plymouth sponsored a “Ben Johnson Olympic Fund” and successfully raised the money to send him to the Trials, where he took fourth in his semifinal.

Johnson’s grand international debut would have to wait … at least until after high school. Because of the Depression, Pennsylvania did not sponsor a state meet his senior year, but he did have the best marks again in the 220 and long jump, as well as the indoor 60.

In 1934, as a Columbia freshman, he beat Metcalfe, a world recordholder in the 100-yard dash and an eventual Olympic gold medalist, in the National indoor AAU 60-meter semifinal and clocked a 49-second quarter on the mile relay that won the Penn Relays’ freshman race.

The next year Johnson beat Owens, Metcalfe and Eulace Peacock for the indoor AAU 60-meter championship, matching Owens’ record of 6.6 seconds in the process. Peacock, another former world recordholder, would beat Owens seven-of-10 times in 1935.

Unfortunately, some Olympic dreams turn to nightmares. Johnson’s troubles began with a torn hamstring that kept him out of competition for most of the 1936 academic year.

He also clashed with the Amateur Athletic Union after its head — former New York Supreme Court Justice Jeremiah T. Mahoney — went to Columbia University in October 1935 in search of support for a boycott of the Berlin Games because of race laws against Jews and non-Aryans instituted in Germany the previous month.

After Mahoney spoke, Johnson told a student gathering that he would not boycott because he felt that conditions for blacks in the South were as reprehensible as for Jews in Germany. “It is futile and hypocritical that Judge Mahoney should attempt to clean up conditions in Germany before cleaning up similar conditions in America,” Johnson was quoted as saying in Columbia Spectator. The New York Times reported that Johnson suggested that Mahoney clean up racial matters within his own AAU.

In December, Johnson, along with Owens, Metcalfe, Peacock and Cornelius Johnson, wrote a letter to U.S. Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage favoring American participation in the Games at Berlin.

Of course, Brundage wanted complete participation and assured everyone that all athletes, black, Jewish and otherwise, would be treated fairly in the field of competition and talks of the boycott were squashed. (Note: That didn’t stop some Jewish athletes — including Harvard captain Milton Greene — from boycotting the Trials in 1936, thus ending their chances to compete in the Olympics.)

Things began looking up for Johnson. The following summer, with his hamstring improved, the Columbia Comet was ready to take on Owens and the others at the Olympic Trials for a spot on the Berlin squad. But a week before the Trials, he cramped up in a rumble-seat ride from Plymouth to Princeton for the National AAU Championships and arrived too late for a proper warmup.

Johnson strained a muscle in the first heat of the day, pulling up after two strides and unable to compete at the Trials. Owens became the hero of the Games as mainstream America first embraced black athletes as the champions they were.

Johnson still had headlines in his future, as he proved with a sensational 1937 campaign, winning AAU and IC4A titles, along with the NCAA 220-yard championship in a speedy 21.3 seconds. At the IC4A meet, he became the first athlete in the 20th century to win three events (100, 220, broad jump).

New York Herald Tribune’s Jesse Abramson wrote, “Then Johnson went abroad, beat the pick of Europe, sweeping 11 of 12 races, returning a world-record 10.2 for 100 meters twice with a favoring breeze. John P. Nicholson of Notre Dame, manager-coach on that European tour, called him the world’s finest after seeing him run week after week in small towns, in world capitals, on good tracks and bad.”

Before the end of the year, he’d be a finalist for the Sullivan Award, which honors the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. Presented annually by the AAU since 1930, the award is based on the qualities of leadership, character, sportsmanship and the ideals of amateurism.

Johnson’s singular highlight came at the 1938 Millrose Games before 17,000 fans in Madison Square Garden. He went 6.2, 6.1 and 6.0 in the 60-yard dash, tying the world record, then breaking it and breaking it again. One report was that Johnson actually had been clocked in 5.9, but the timers dismissed that because they didn’t believe a human could run that fast.

Wrote Abramson, “With his final performance he wiped out all recorded 60-yard records, on boards, on dirt, with and without starting blocks, surpassing the feats of Loren Murchison, Jesse Owens, Ralph Metcalfe, Eddie Tolan, Emmett Toppino and all others.”

Voted the outstanding performer by a panel of eight sportswriters, Johnson was hailed as ‘world’s fastest human.’

The rest of his senior season was lost because a case of the measles, although he did sweep the 100- and 220-yard dashes at White City Stadium in London before 70,000 fans that summer. But it was time for Johnson to move on to a post-athletic life, and with World War II on the horizon there were larger concerns.

“I have always felt that Ben Johnson was under-appreciated because he never had the chance to run for his country,” Columbia sports historian Bill Shannon told Michael Mirer of the Columbia Spectator. “I am sure he would have been a star sprinter had there been a 1940 Olympics.”

Johnson began to teach history and coach track at Bordentown Manual Training School, and did so for a few years before enlisting in the Army in December of 1942. Quickly promoted to corporal, he became a warrant officer by the following April. Shortly after attending anti-aircraft officer school in 1943, he was off to command a company in Germany. The unit he commanded worked with the famed ‘Red Ball Express,’ the massive convoy supply effort which spelled a rapid demise of the German Army.

Johnson, ending his Army career among the nation’s first black colonels, became a deputy chief of the Freight Traffic Division at the Brooklyn Army Terminal in the mid-1950s and remained active after leaving the Army in 1968. For a decade he was an affirmative action officer in the State of Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare. He also served the community through both the YMCA and the Urban League before passing away a week before Christmas in 1992.

To this day, seven decades after his star shined brightest, no Columbia Lion has ever been faster on an indoor straightaway and only one has been faster outdoors. The Columbia Comet certainly has withstood the test of time.


This story was written by Brett Hoover in 2006 in conjunction with the League’s black history celebration.

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