Halfway through the men's 400-meter final at the world track and
field championships in Goteborg, Sweden, last week, the leaders
were even, making their differences seem mere matters of style.
World-record holder Butch Reynolds, whose 43.29 has stood since
1988, ran so tall and so long that Michael Johnson, with his
lower knees and shorter gait, seemed a maxed-out trotter trying
to stay with a thoroughbred.
This is an article from the Aug. 21, 1995 issue
But then, passing 200 meters in 21.3 seconds, the trotter began
to sprint, and he showed a marveling world (and a devastated
Reynolds) that he is the modern incarnation of Jesse Owens.
Owens, the hero of the 1936 Olympics, said he ran as if the
track were the top of a hot stove; he tried to snatch up each
foot the instant he put it down. Johnson, burning through the
third 100 meters in 10.45, perfectly embodied Owens's technique.
Then in the stretch, running away, his lead yawning past six
meters, Johnson showed that he has added an implacable, muscular
endurance to Owens's mechanics.
When Johnson was a single stride from the finish, the clock on
the infield to his left still hadn't reached 43 seconds. Johnson
didn't look at it. Reynolds tried to. "I couldn't see it,'' he
would say, "but Michael was so far ahead...." Reynolds was sick
with fear. "For seven years the record has been a part of life,
a part of me."
Only when he had crossed the finish line did Johnson allow
himself a sidelong glance at the clock. Later, many watching the
slow-motion replay of this moment would cry out in surprise: He
wanted that world record. He did not quite get it. His 43.39 was
.1 of a second shy, allowing Reynolds perhaps another week,
perhaps another year of queasy stewardship.
In any other athlete a simple look at the clock, a passing
betrayal of ambition, would hardly be cause for wonder. But in
Michael Johnson we have a champion as remarkable for his
containment as for his speed, his range and his durability.
Indeed, there is danger that the whole of what Johnson went on
to do in the worlds--running six preliminaries and three finals,
winning the 400 last Wednesday and the 200 on Friday,
anchoring the victorious U.S. 4x400-meter relay team on Sunday
and moving the International Amateur Athletic Federation to
consider changing the Olympic schedule of events to allow a
reprise of his 200-400 double in Atlanta--may obscure the merit
of his performances.
The 400 he ran, for example, was intrinsically superior to the
world record. Johnson had to run three rigorous 400s (45.49,
45.15 and 44.90) to make the final, while in 1988 Reynolds had
gone to Zurich rested, as had his opponents. The men behind
Reynolds in Zurich had better times than those behind Johnson in
Goteborg, proof of the drain of the rounds in Sweden.
Johnson had not coasted to a stop after the 400 before the dean
of European track experts, Robert Pariente of the French sports
daily, L'Equipe, was on his feet. "Mon Dieu, 10.45 seconds for
the third 100! On the turn!" he said. "Impossible." Johnson had
left his opponents so fast that he eased the sting of their
defeat. Bronze medalist Greg Haughton of Jamaica (44.56) and
seventh-placer Roger Black of Britain (45.28) held up their
heads and said they were honored to be in Johnson's wake.
Johnson trotted a victory lap, his satisfaction evident but
measured. In part this was because he had to run a heat for the
200 meters the next morning, but it was also because Johnson is
simply not given to dramatic displays. This, not so curiously,
struck a nerve in the man who has given track wondrous theater.
Carl Lewis, before flying home to Houston to tend the strained
hamstring that forced him to withdraw from the long jump, spoke
with Ian Thomsen of the International Herald Tribune and said,
"This world championships, it's boring. The electricity is not
there. There's no buzz, no passionate missions. There's
something missing." Thomsen pried out of Lewis that the missing
element was ... Lewis, or a suitable heir. "If that's it, that's
it," said Lewis. "The one American they're trying to build up,
Michael Johnson, he doesn't have it. He's not doing anything for
But many athletes set goals and work toward them for reasons
other than making themselves immortal, or even famous. Five
years ago, when Johnson, not long out of Baylor, became the only
man to be ranked No. 1 at both the 200 and the 400, he began
hearing that he had a chance to brand himself on our collective
imagination. Johnson, who was called a nerd in high school in
Dallas for his neat, scholarly, organized ways, found that
possibility at best amusing and at worst distracting, which
would never do. Even now, asked if his unprecedented double at
the worlds made history or satisfied personal goals, he said,
"Well, I happened to make it my goal to do something no one else
has done, and that turned out to make history."
And to win the Goteborg crowd. "The people supported me before
I'd even run a heat here," Johnson said. "One kid kept yelling,
'Magic, Magic....'" Once I figured out that he meant me, I was
touched. I also think it was a great championships."
Had he stuck around, even Lewis might have found these worlds
mildly diverting. In the women's 400-meter hurdles, the
perfectly matched Kim Batten and Tonja Buford, both of the U.S.,
did battle with hardly a thought of a record and in the process
shattered a big one. Batten (previous best: 53.72) and Buford
(53.63), great friends, found themselves inseparable as they
swept over the ninth hurdle and into the stretch. Buford had led
early, but Batten had her by a foot over the last hurdle. Yet
Buford has often been the stronger finisher.
"If she'd won, I couldn't have been disappointed," Batten said
"I leaned as best I could lean," said Buford.
Batten just leaned better. Both staggered over the line too
spent to react to the crowd. As the thunder grew, Batten was the
first to sense what it might mean. She turned to the clock and
was astounded to see it stopped at 52.61. "Tonja," shrieked
Batten, "we broke the world record!"
Buford was timed in 52.62, so both women had eclipsed the
standard of 52.74 established by Sally Gunnell of Britain in
1993. Each chopped more than a full second from her best. "I
said to myself last night, if I set a personal record, I'd be
happy with bronze," said Batten.
If Lewis were not so jaded, he might have seen the 110-meter
high hurdles race of the U.S.'s Allen Johnson. Johnson clobbered
the third and seventh hurdles in the final but was uncannily
unaffected, staying ahead of Britain's Tony Jarrett. Then
Johnson hit the last barrier so hard that his knees buckled.
Miraculously, he recovered to win in 13.00, within striking
distance of the world record of 12.91.
Or, if Lewis's sense of drama demanded the spectacle of old
enemies slashing at each other anew, he couldn't have looked
away from the women's 200 last Thursday, though he might have
wanted to. The world 100-meter champion, Gwen Torrence of the
U.S., ran a spectacular race, winning by more than three meters
in 21.77 over Jamaica's 35-year-old Merlene Ottey. But as
Torrence was telling a TV interviewer that she had been spooked
by the theft of her shoes before the race and feared sabotage,
the scoreboard flashed the results. Instead of leading the list,
Torrence's name was at the bottom, accompanied by a dread dq for
disqualified. Replays had shown that she ran at least three
steps on the inner lane line in the latter part of the turn.
The reaction by several of Torrence's competitors was
unconcealed delight. Torrence has been much disliked since
stating her unsupported belief, after finishing fourth in the
Barcelona Olympic 100, that some of those who had beaten her
were aided by drugs. What Ottey said in Goteborg evened the score.
"She cheated," said Ottey. "She ran about two meters shorter
than everybody." Even though, as eventual second-placer Irina
Privalova of Russia pointed out, the error could not have made a
difference of more than a few inches, Ottey's words staggered
Torrence. "She didn't hurt me as a competitor," Torrence said
the next day, her voice catching. "She hurt me as a person. I've
always instilled in my little boy that you don't have to cheat
to win. Now he's at home reading that I cheated."
It was inevitable, then, that Ottey and Torrence would meet one
last time, anchoring their nations' 4x100-meter relay teams on
Sunday. They even got their respective batons in step with each
other. Then Torrence outran Ottey by more than a meter.
Pleasantries were not exchanged.
If Lewis could be moved by the poignant return of a beloved
champion, he should have been there to see the 800 meters of
Cuba's Ana Fidelia Quirot. The 1992 Olympic bronze medalist, who
lost only one race between 1988 and '90, had suffered hideous
burns over her chest, neck and arms in a kerosene fire in
January 1993. While near death in the hospital, she gave
premature birth to a daughter, who died 10 days later. By the
end of that year she was back running. No passionate missions?
When Quirot presented herself at the start of the 800 final, the
scars on her chest and legs shone dully in the Scandinavian sun.
At the gun Quirot took shelter from the wind behind Meredith
Rainey of the U.S. and Kelly Holmes of Britain. Off the last
turn, she drew wide, and there it was, the old stride, the old
irresistible kick. Quirot won going away in 1:56.11 (a victory
aided, she granted, by the disqualification of Mozambique's
world champ, Maria Mutola, in the semi for another galling
lane-line violation). "This is," Quirot said, simply and
tearfully, "the happiest day of my life."
If he could have stood all that boredom, Lewis would have seen
that it was left to Michael Johnson to define the worlds with
the 200 meters. Indeed, Lewis would have found himself agreeing
with Johnson's manager, Brad Hunt, who for some time has felt
that Johnson's stone face might be effective in competition but
has given the wrong impression of the man.
"He is purposely isolated from his competitors," said Hunt.
"He's never going to allow them inside. But he is so focused he
almost isolates himself from his fans. At the end of last
season, I said to Michael, 'You need to show the audience how
much you enjoy what you do.'"
Johnson took this under advisement. In the final yards of June's
U.S. national 400, which he won in 43.66, he tried a little
vaudevillian wave, as if he were shaking a straw hat, but that
just offended Reynolds, who finished second, and prompted cries
that Johnson might have thrown away a world record by not
running through the finish. No, waving didn't seem right.
Johnson determined to let the moment suggest the gesture.
The 200-meter final at Goteborg had everything, even
disbelieving opponents. Britain's John Regis said he had never
been able to run one fast 200 the day after a 400, let alone
three prelims and a final over two days. So every evening
Johnson had turned himself over to a massage therapist for up to
two hours to soothe away the stiffness. But his real secret, if
it can be called that, is a lifetime of hard workouts done with
exceptionally short rests.
The day was warm, the crowd expectant. As the finalists went to
the set position, Johnson stared so sharply at a point in front
of him that you expected later to find there a puddle of melted
urethane. Yet at the gun he seemed to show the weight of all he
had borne. He was out behind Brazil's Robson Da Silva and
Namibia's Frank Fredericks. Then Johnson simply rolled past, not
as a thunderbolt but as a gathering storm. He was a meter ahead
off the turn and running with full power. He held his shoulders
low in the last meters, and his downturning grimace showed that
he was flat-out.
He won, looked again for the clock, saw that the time was 19.79,
equal to his best but still .07 of a second from Pietro Mennea's
altitude-assisted world record of 19.72 set in 1979, and threw
his head back in an instant's lament. "It was unbelievable to
come so close twice," he would say. Then Johnson let his
dominant emotions flood in. And what he did next should be where
we depart these worlds.
Yes, Johnson would cruise a 44.12 leg in anchoring the U.S.'s
4x400 relay on the last day of the meet, when a cold wind bent
the rushing birches and made you understand where you were and
that it was time to go. Yes, Johnson's performances got the
authorities to look at accommodating his hoped-for double in
Atlanta, although IAAF president Primo Nebiolo insisted Johnson
could handle the 200 semi and the 400 final on the same day,
saying, "If he wants to run backward, he could do it."
But the enduring image of Johnson in Goteborg should be his act
after the 200. He looked at the crowd, spread his arms wide and
collapsed backward in a child's gesture of exhaustion, relief
and contentment. In that moment, spread-eagled and vulnerable,
Johnson achieved all anyone, even Carl Lewis, could ask. This
private man found a way to let us see exactly how much he
enjoyed what he had done.
worlds mildly diverting.
scars shone dully in the Scandinavian sun.