Born in Falmouth, Jamaica, Johnson immigrated to Canada in 1976, residing in Scarborough, Ontario.
Johnson met coach Charlie Francis and joined the Scarborough Optimists track and field club, training at York University. Francis was a Canadian 100 metres sprint champion himself (1970, 1971 and 1973) and a member of the Canadian team for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Francis was also Canada's national sprint coach for nine years.
Johnson's first international success came when he won two silver medals at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia. He finished behind Allan Wells of Scotland in the 100 m with a time of 10.05 seconds and was a member of the Canadian 4 × 100 m relay team which finished behind Nigeria. This success was not repeated at the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki, where he was eliminated in the semi-finals, finishing 6th with a time of 10.44, nor at the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas where Johnson placed 5th in the 100 m final with a time of 10.25.
At the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, he reached the 100 m final; after false starting, he won the bronze medal behind Carl Lewis and Sam Graddy with a time of 10.22. He also won a bronze medal with the Canadian 4 × 100 m relay team of Johnson, Tony Sharpe, Desai Williams and Sterling Hinds, who ran a time of 38.70. By the end of the 1984 season, Johnson had established himself as Canada's top sprinter, and on August 22 in Zurich, Switzerland, he bettered Williams' Canadian record of 10.17 by running 10.12.
In 1985, after eight consecutive losses, Johnson finally beat Carl Lewis. Other success against Lewis included the 1986 Goodwill Games, where Johnson beat Lewis, running 9.95 for first place, against Lewis' third-place time of 10.06. He broke Houston McTear's seven-year-old world record in the 60 metres in 1986, with a time of 6.50 seconds. He also won Commonwealth gold at the 1986 games in Edinburgh, beating Linford Christie for the 100 m title with a time of 10.07. Johnson also led the Canadian 4x100 m relay team to gold, and won a bronze in the 200 m.
On April 29, 1987, Johnson was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada. "World record holder for the indoor 60-meter run, this Ontarian has proved himself to be the world's fastest human being and has broken Canadian, Commonwealth and World Cup 100-meter records," it read. "Recipient of the Norton Crowe Award for Male Athlete of the Year for 1985, 'Big Ben' was the winner of the 1986 Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada's top athlete."
By the time of the 1987 World Championships, Johnson had won his four previous races with Lewis and had established himself as the best 100 m sprinter. At Rome, Johnson gained instant world fame and confirmed this status when he beat Lewis for the title, setting a new world record of 9.83 seconds as well, beating Calvin Smith's former record by a full tenth of a second.
After Rome, Johnson became a lucrative marketing celebrity. According to coach Charlie Francis, after breaking the world record, Johnson earned about $480,000 a month in endorsements. Johnson won both the Lou Marsh Trophy and Lionel Conacher Award, and was named the Associated Press Athlete of the Year for 1987.
Following Johnson's defeat of Lewis in Rome, Lewis started trying to explain away his defeat. He first claimed that Johnson had false-started, then he alluded to a stomach virus which had weakened him. Finally, without naming names, Lewis said "There are a lot of people coming out of nowhere. I don't think they are doing it without drugs." This was the start of Lewis' calling on the sport of track and field to be cleaned up in terms of the illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs. While cynics noted that the problem had been in the sport for many years, they pointed out that it did not become a cause for Lewis until he was actually defeated, with some also pointing to Lewis's egotistical attitude and lack of humility. During a controversial interview with the BBC, Lewis said:
There are gold medallists at this meet who are on drugs, that [100 metres] race will be looked at for many years, for more reasons than one.
Johnson's response was:
When Carl Lewis was winning everything, I never said a word against him. And when the next guy comes along and beats me, I won't complain about that either.
This set up the rivalry leading into the 1988 Olympic Games. However, it should be noted that in 1986, Canadian sprinter Mike Dwyer expressed concern that the use of drugs had reached "epidemic proportions" among Canadian sprinters, particularly among those who trained in the Toronto area. Atlee Mahorn also speculated that many sprinters were on steroids.
In 1988, Johnson experienced a number of setbacks to his running career. In February of that year he pulled a hamstring, and in May he aggravated the same injury. Meanwhile, in Paris in June, Lewis ran a 9.99. Then in Zurich, Switzerland on August 17, the two faced each other for the first time since the 1987 World Championships; Lewis won in 9.93, while Johnson finished third in 10.00. "The gold medal for the (Olympic) 100 meters is mine," Carl Lewis said. "I will never again lose to Johnson."
On September 24, 1988, Johnson became the first sprinter from Canada since Percy Williams in 1928 to win the 100m final at the Summer Olympics in Seoul, lowering his own world record to 9.79 seconds. Johnson would later remark that he would have been even faster had he not raised his hand in the air just before he finished the race. However, Park Jong-sei of the Olympic Doping Control Center found that Johnson's blood and urine samples contained stanozolol, and he was disqualified three days later. He later admitted having used steroids when he ran his 1987 world record, which caused the IAAF to rescind that record as well. Johnson and coach Francis complained that they used doping in order to remain on an equal footing with the other top athletes on drugs they had to compete against. In testimony before the Dubin inquiry into drug use, Francis charged that Johnson was only one of many cheaters, and he just happened to get caught. Later, six of the eight finalists of the 100-meter race tested positive for banned drugs or were implicated in a drug scandal at some point in their careers: Carl Lewis, who was given the gold medal, Linford Christie, who was moved up to the silver medal and who went on to win gold at the next Games, Dennis Mitchell, who was moved up to fourth place and finished third to Christie in 1992, and Desai Williams, Johnson's countryman who won a bronze medal in the 4 × 100 m relay at the Los Angeles Games in 1984. In the ESPN documentary 9.79*, eventual silver medallist Christie states, and footage of the race shows, that Lewis "ran out of his lane... two or three times" during the race, which should have resulted in Lewis' automatic disqualification.
Johnson's coach, Charlie Francis, a vocal critic of the IOC testing procedures, is the author of Speed Trap, which features Johnson heavily. In the book, he freely admits that his athletes were taking anabolic steroids, as he claims all top athletes at the time were, and also claims that Johnson could not possibly have tested positive for that particular steroid since Johnson actually preferred furazabol. He thought stanozolol made his body "feel tight". The numerous athletes using performance-enhancing drugs at the time understood how long before a race, and possible drug test, they should stop using the drugs. Johnson later claimed that André A. Jackson, Lewis' Santa Monica Track Club teammate, who was inside the drug testing room in Seoul, may have placed the stanozolol in one of the beers Johnson drank in order to make urine for his test.
Canadians rejoiced in the reflected glory of winning the gold medal and breaking the world record.
Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney watched Johnson set the new world record and after the race congratulated him over the phone. "It's a marvellous evening for Canada," Mulroney said in the televised conversation.
Newspapers covered the occasion by concocting words such as "Benfastic" (Toronto Star, September 25, 1988) to describe it. Two days later, Canadians witnessed the downfall of Johnson, when he was stripped of his gold medal and world record. Mark Tewksbury, a Canadian Olympic swimmer hung a bed sheet banner out of his Olympic Village apartment window expressing 'Hero to Zero in 9.79'. In the first week following the dethroning, Canadian newspapers devoted between five and eight pages a day to the story. Some squarely placed the blame on Johnson, such as one headline right after the exposure suggests: "Why, Ben?" (Toronto Sun, September 26, 1988). Because of the Olympic scandal, the Canadian news agency Canadian Press named Johnson "Newsmaker of the Year" for 1988.
After the Seoul test, he initially denied doping, but, testifying before the 1989 Dubin Inquiry, a Canadian government investigation into drug abuse, Johnson admitted that he had lied. Charlie Francis, his coach, told the inquiry that Johnson had been using steroids since 1981.
In Canada, the federal government established the Commission of Inquiry Into the Use of Drugs and Banned Practices Intended to Increase Athletic Performance, headed by Ontario Appeal Court Chief Justice Charles Dubin. The Dubin Inquiry (as it became known), which was televised live, heard hundreds of hours of testimony about the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs among athletes. The inquiry began in January 1989 and lasted 91 days, with 122 witnesses called, including athletes, coaches, sport administrators, IOC representatives, doctors and government officials.
In 1991, after his suspension ended, he attempted a comeback. He returned to the track for the Hamilton Indoor Games in 1991 and was greeted by the largest crowd to ever attend an indoor Canadian track and field event. More than 17,000 people saw him finish second in the 50 metres in 5.77 seconds.
He failed to qualify for the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo but made the Canadian Olympic team again in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain after finishing second at the Canadian Olympic trials to Bruny Surin. He missed the 100 metre finals at the Olympics, however, finishing last in his semi-final heat after stumbling out of the blocks.
In 1993, he won the 50 metres on January 7 in Grenoble, France, in 5.65 seconds, just 0.04 seconds shy of the world record. However, he was found guilty of doping just after the race – this time for excess testosterone – and was subsequently banned for life by the IAAF. Federal amateur sport minister Pierre Cadieux called Johnson a national disgrace, and suggested he consider moving back to Jamaica. Johnson commented that it was "by far the most disgusting comment [he had] ever heard." In April 1999, a Canadian adjudicator ruled that there were procedural errors in Johnson's lifetime ban and allowed him to appeal. The decision meant Johnson could technically run in Canada but nobody would compete against him. They would be considered "contaminated" by the IAAF and could also face sanctions. On June 12, 1999, Johnson entered a track meet in Kitchener, Ontario, and was forced to run alone, against the clock. He posted a time of 11.0 seconds. In late 1999, Johnson failed a drug test for the third time by testing positive for hydrochlorothiazide, a banned diuretic that can be used to mask the presence of other drugs. Johnson had not competed since 1993 and had arranged the test himself as part of his efforts to be reinstated.
In 1999, Johnson made headlines again when it was revealed that he had been hired by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to act as a football coach for his son, Al-Saadi Gaddafi, who aspired to join an Italian football club. Al-Saadi ultimately did join an Italian team but was sacked after one game when he failed a drug test. Johnson's publicist in Canada had predicted in The Globe and Mail that his training of the young Gaddafi would earn Johnson a Nobel Peace Prize.
Johnson briefly acted as trainer for Argentine football player Diego Maradona in 1997. This occurred at York University, Toronto.
In 1998, Johnson appeared in a charity race in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, where he raced against a thoroughbred race horse, a harness racing horse and a stock car. Johnson finished third in the race.
According to a 1998 article in Outside magazine, Johnson spent much of the latter part of the 1990s living downstairs in the house he shared with his mother Gloria. He spent his leisure time reading, watching movies and Roadrunner cartoons, and taking his mother to church. He lived in a spacious home in Newmarket, Ontario's Stonehaven neighborhood. He claims to have lost his Ferrari when he used it as collateral for a loan from an acquaintance in order to make a house payment. Gloria died of cancer in 2004 and Johnson lived with his sister afterwards.
Shortly after his leaving Libya, it was reported that Johnson had been robbed of $7,300 by a Romani gang in Rome. His wallet was taken, containing $7,300 in cash, the proceeds of his pay for training Gaddafi. Johnson gave chase, but was unable to catch them after they vanished into a subway station.
In May 2005, Johnson launched a clothing and sports supplement line, the Ben Johnson Collection. The motto for Johnson's clothing line was "Catch Me"; however, the clothing line never caught on.
In a January 1, 2006 interview, Johnson claimed that he was sabotaged by a "Mystery Man" inside the doping-control room immediately following the 100m final in Seoul. He also stated that 40% of people in the sports world are still taking drugs to improve their performance.
In March 2006, television spots featuring Johnson advertising an energy drink, "Cheetah Power Surge", started to receive some airtime. Some pundits questioned whether Johnson was an appropriate spokesperson for an all natural energy drink considering his history of steroid use. One ad is a mock interview between Johnson and Frank D'Angelo, the president and chief executive of D'Angelo Brands, which makes the drink, in which he asks Johnson: "Ben, when you run, do you Cheetah?" "Absolutely," says Johnson. "I Cheetah all the time." The other commercial includes Johnson and a cheetah, the world's fastest land animal, and encourages viewers to "go ahead and Cheetah."
In August 2008, Johnson filed a $37 million lawsuit against the estate of his former lawyer Ed Futerman, claiming Futerman made unauthorized payments from his trust account to pay bills and 20 percent commissions to a hairdresser recruited by the lawyer to act as the sprinter's sports agent. In 2012, the lawsuit was dismissed by the Ontario Superior Court by summary judgment on the basis that "there were no genuine issues raised requiring a trial".
At present, Johnson lives in Markham, Ontario and spends much of his time with his daughter and granddaughter. He also continues to coach, notably with Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban. In 2010, he released his autobiography entitled Seoul to Soul. In the self-published book, Johnson reviews his childhood in Jamaica, and his early bout with malaria. A Canadian Press article described the book as "an unconventional sports autobiography."
The CBC radio documentary, Rewind, Ben Johnson: A Hero Disgraced broadcast on September 19, 2013, for the 25th anniversary of the race, revealed 20 athletes tested positive for drugs but were cleared by the IOC at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and an IOC official told the CBC that endocrine profiles done at those games indicated that 80 percent of the track and field athletes tested showed evidence of long-term steroid use, although few were banned or had their medals stripped.
CBC Radio was told by its sources that NBC had threatened to withhold its second rights payment to the IOC, due on completion of the 1988 Seoul Olympics games, stating "if these games collapse in scandal, we're out and that money's gone."
In May 2017, Ben appeared in an advertising campaign for Australia's leading mobile bookmaker, Sportsbet. The campaign launches Sportsbet's new Android app, and Ben cheekily claims it "has tested positive for speed and power, again and again." The campaign tagline is "Putting the 'Roid in Android" and concludes with Ben in the starters block on a racing track, telling punters to "get on it!" The ad can be found on YouTube.