• U.S.

MICHAEL JOHNSON: DOUBLE FAST

9 minute read
Steve Wulf/Atlanta

Some day soon the track at Olympic Stadium will be sold off. The stadium, after all, is being converted into a baseball park, and in keeping with the never-say-die spirit of commerce shown by the Games of Atlanta, an auction will be held for sections of the vulcanized rubber track that produced two world records, 13 Olympic records and countless dramas. What are we bid for the finish line of Lane 3?

It was over that section of track that the golden shoes flew. At precisely 9 p.m. last Thursday, the gun went off for the final of the 200 m, and with the fireflies of thousands of flash cameras sparkling in the night, Michael Johnson exploded from the blocks. He momentarily stumbled, then shifted into a gear previously known only to Mercury. The fireflies followed him as he came slinging out of the turn, obliterating the stagger and defying the laws of physics. According to Trinidad’s Ato Boldon, who would finish third, “I saw a blue blur go by, whoosh, and thought, ‘There goes first.'” As Johnson widened his lead, it was clear he was running for more than gold. Clyde Hart, Johnson’s coach, later said, “I was in the stands in Mexico City when Bob Beamon long-jumped over 29 ft., and even when he was in the air, you just knew it was something special. Tonight, same thing.” When Johnson crossed the finish line, a full 5 m ahead of silver medalist Frankie Fredericks of Namibia, the timer read 19.32 sec. People who knew the significance of the number blinked in disbelief. Johnson had broken his own world record of 19.66 by more than a third of a second, skipping right over the .50s and .40s. Oh, yes–he had also just become the first man in Olympic history to win both the 200 and the 400. What are we bid for the finish line of Lane 3? What are we bid for lasting greatness?

In a week of compelling track and field and a fortnight of exhilarating Olympic performances, Johnson’s golden shoes left the biggest imprint. The Atlanta Games will and should be remembered for the bomb that killed Alice Hawthorne, 44, of Albany, Georgia, and they will and should serve as a manual on how not to transport people. But the sports themselves moved millions in Atlanta and at home. Track and field, in particular, was a treasure trove: a ninth gold medal for Carl Lewis in the long jump; redemption for Dan O’Brien in the decathlon; a world record in the 100 m for Donovan Bailey; a first-course 200/400 double for Marie-Jose Perec of France, Guadeloupe and Beverly Hills, California; and his-and-hers gold medals for triple jumper Kenny Harrison and his girlfriend, 100-m winner Gail Devers. Then there were the Johnsons: Allen, who won the 110-m hurdles; Michael; and Michael.

They really are two different people, the Michael who runs the more strategic 400 and the Michael who runs the more aggressive 200. The 400 Michael listens to jazz on his headset in the days before a race; the 200 Michael listens to gangsta rap. The 400 Michael repairs to Waco, Texas, after the opening ceremonies to work with Hart. The 200 Michael parties the night away at Planet Hollywood with actor Billy Baldwin, skier Picabo Street and former decathlete Daley Thompson. The 400 Michael checks in on his Website www.michaeljohnson.com to answer fan mail, and carries with him a letter from Ruth Owens in which she writes that she sees her late husband Jesse in him. “Greatest compliment I’ve ever been paid,” says Johnson, whose upright running style has often been compared to that of the ’36 Olympics hero. On the other hand, the 200 Michael plots a product line called “The Danger Zone” and heaps even more pressure on himself by having Nike make him nine pairs of gold shoes for the Games. “Sure, it was bold,” says agent Brad Hunt, who successfully lobbied for the schedule change that allowed Johnson–and Perec–to go for the double. “Some athletes thought it was crazy. But the way Michael figured it, he has always done his best under pressure.”

Occasionally, Jekyll and Hyde get confused. After winning his 400 semifinal last Monday, Johnson threw his shoes into the stands, then belatedly and sheepishly realized that the shoes have spikes. Johnson’s only real competition in the 400, world-record holder Butch Reynolds, pulled a hamstring in his semifinal, so the thrill of the final lay in the widening distance between Johnson and his rivals–it was like watching Secretariat in the Belmont. Unpressed, he won his 55th straight 400 in 43.39, an Olympic record just 0.2 sec. off Reynolds’ world standard. “I’ll get that record eventually,” said Johnson, pulling on a T shirt that read DANGER ZONE. “But now I think about the 200. Danger Zone–that’s where I have to go now. I’ve got to get more aggressive. I’ve got 48 hours to prepare. The other 200 guys are saying that because I did the 400, I’m vulnerable. That’s a mistake.” Yikes.

Johnson came up with the idea of the Danger Zone four years ago, after food poisoning took him out of the Barcelona Olympics. He felt he needed to psychically bridge the gap between the 400 and the 200. Even coach Hart, a folksy Texan who prefers to sit at the halfway mark of a race so he can time Michael’s split, goes along with the transition, filling the sprinter’s head with tough and fast imagery in the days between the two races. Agent Hunt and Johnson had hoped to promote their Danger Zone line of merchandise last week, but once the bomb exploded, they wisely decided to back off. Product line or not, Johnson was clearly in the zone as the 200 approached, growing surlier and surlier. “You have to understand,” said Hart, “Michael’s been on a four-year mad ever since Barcelona.”

As on Monday, when Johnson and Perec won their respective 400s, Lewis the long jump and Allen Johnson the 110-m hurdles, Thursday evening at Olympic Stadium promised the fantastic. It was a night O’Brien had dreamed about for four years, ever since he no-heighted in the pole vault at the ’92 Olympic trials. “Watching a competition you felt you could win,” O’Brien said of the Barcelona Olympics, “was worse than getting picked last in gym class.” This time around, O’Brien had no trouble with the pole vault. But he still had Frank Busemann, 21, of Germany on his tail as he headed across the infield for his ninth event, the javelin. For that, O’Brien got some helpful advice from none other than Dave Johnson, his Reebok-created nemesis from ’92. “Dave’s the javelin expert,” said Dan, “so I yelled at him, ‘Which jav do I use, the 85 or 90 m?’ He said 90, so that’s what I threw.” And O’Brien threw it for a personal best 66.96 m, giving him a comfortable lead with one event to go.

When Johnson won the 200, he may have become the first man to snare the double, but he was only the second person of the evening. Perec had decided to run the 200 on a lark after her victory in the 400. Some lark. She powered past Merlene Ottey of Jamaica, whose medal was the sixth of her career–all silver or bronze. Afterward, Perec apologized to her fellow Caribbean for depriving her of her first gold. A delightful woman who models for Claude Montana and spars with the French press over her move to the States, Perec causes as much of a sensation with her revealing track outfit as she does with her speed. “In Paris,” she says, “I am like Michael Jordan.” In Atlanta she was like Michael Johnson.

The good Michael Johnson enjoyed watching Perec win her race, but the bad Michael didn’t much like it because, “I thought it might psyche up Ato Boldon, who trains with her.” But when the gun went off, there was nobody else in the race with Johnson. He could have gone even faster had he not stumbled at the start, or felt a twinge in his right hamstring at the end–a pull that kept from a third gold medal in the 4 x 400 relay on Saturday night.

Even after he crossed the finish line, Johnson was still in the danger zone, bellowing over his record and pulling at his unitard. But then he approached Fredericks, who had beaten him in the 200 just a few weeks ago, and the aggression melted away. Johnson smiled warmly and returned to his normal, better self. In the press conference, he was asked how it felt to go faster than any man had ever gone before–9.2 sec. in the last 100 m. “It was like the first time I went down the hill at the end of our street in the go-cart my father made for me,” said Johnson. “If you want to know what that’s like, get yourself a go-cart.”

There was a wonderful tableau at the end of Thursday evening when Johnson beamed on the center medal platform as O’Brien, who had just completed his final event, the 1,500 m, ran a victory lap with the American flag. There they were, two men robbed by fate in ’92, covered in the cheers of 80,000. When it came time for O’Brien to take the stand, he remembered he had left his warm-up suit behind. So he borrowed the suit of another man of similar height and weight. That’s how Michael Johnson’s track suit pulled its own double Thursday night.

Up in the stands of Olympic Stadium was an 81-year-old man who, by his own admission, was “bawling like a baby.” Fritz Pollard had been on the ’36 Olympic team with Jesse Owens, winning the bronze in the 110-m hurdles, and as he watched Johnson, he thought, “That kid has got Jesse’s spirit.”

The next day Pollard and Johnson met at a hotel adjacent to Olympic Stadium and talked privately for 15 minutes. Johnson, who is about to reap endorsement bounty, graciously accepted an old warmup jacket from Pollard. Some things are priceless.

–Reported by Sally B. Donnelly, Lawrence Mondi and Robert Sullivan/Atlanta

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