The eye went right with Michael Johnson in the 200-meter final,
right with the gold hoop in his left ear, with his favorite
metallic-purple shoes as they twinkled into a blur off the turn.
In the straightaway the precision of his stride masked its
power, at least until the eye pulled back to compare him with
other mortals near the finish and couldn't find any within four
meters. Dutifully, as his coach, Clyde Hart, had asked, Johnson
ran hard well past the finish line.
The eye went to the clock. It read 19.66. The eye, knowing the
world record was 19.72, went to the wind gauge. A day earlier
Johnson had run 19.70 in the semifinals but had been pushed by
too much breeze for the time to count as a record. Now the gauge
read +1.7 meters per second. Anything less than 2.0 is legal. He
had done it.
Johnson's own eye had caught sight of that 19.66, but since he
is the soul of practicality, he didn't even turn to learn the
wind reading. "I knew if it was over the limit, I'd hear some
moans and groans," he would say later. "I didn't. I knew."
He threw up his arms in a gesture that included all the 30,000
people he had induced to witness the final race of the eight-day
U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Atlanta's new Olympic
Stadium. His was a gratification deferred for years.
June 30, 1996
The previous 200-meter record had been set by Italy's Pietro
Mennea in the altitude of Mexico City 17 years earlier. Mennea,
who later acknowledged that he had used performance-enhancing
drugs during his career, was labeled by the Italian press as
"the luckiest man in the history of track and field" because his
mark miraculously survived year after year. In 1983 it nearly
fell to a young Carl Lewis, who started celebrating 10 meters
from the tape and slowed to 19.75. Then Mike Marsh had the
record dead to rights in the 1992 Olympics, but because he was
in a semifinal, he coasted home and missed by .01 of a second.
Johnson had been ready to take the record for at least four
years, since running 19.79 in the 1992 Olympic trials, in
miasmal New Orleans. But he had so thrown himself into preparing
for his shining goal--the Olympic 200-400 double never
accomplished by any man--that he had not often tried for a
record. Indeed, his best times, another 19.79 in the 200 and a
43.39 in the 400 (.1 of a second from Butch Reynolds's world
record), had both come in the finals of the 1995 world
championships in Sweden, when Johnson was tired from rounds of
So devoted is he to the Olympic double that he said last week,
"I would take being a 200-400 double gold medalist over being
the world-record holder in the 400 any day." Presciently, he
omitted the 200 record. But what a natural goal the double is
for Johnson, so celebrated for being an academic grind. Who
better to take on twice as much work for extra credit? Who could
be a better fit for the onrushing Olympics, this coming-out
cotillion for the corporate New South, than Johnson, who has his
own Web page and wrote a seamlessly unrevealing column during
the trials for USA Today?
It's easy to forget the man is hard. Johnson last lost an
outdoor 400 final in the 1988 trials, when he was running with a
broken fibula. For 10 years he has done searing workouts of
"quality volume, minimum rest," sprinting in 100[degree] heat in
In eight trials races in Atlanta he confessed to a single
mistake, one that cost him a second world record. "There are a
lot of things you have to concentrate on in the 400," he said,
"and two of them are opposites: aggression and relaxation. It's
very tempting to go right to the relaxing before the aggressing."
In the 400-meter final he felt he yielded to that temptation. He
came out of the blocks even with his old rival Reynolds, whose
dignity and eight-year-old world record are about all Johnson
hasn't stripped from him. These are men of different tactics.
The tall Reynolds begins fairly modestly and runs down faster
starters in the final 100. Johnson bolts through the first 100,
floats through the second (ideally reaching the 200 in 21
seconds), blasts through the third and holds on with form and
fire in the last. This time he hit the 200 in 21.2, but because
he began the race at Reynolds's pace, he had had to work, not
float, through the backstretch to get there.
"That was the mistake," Johnson said. He hit the stretch five
meters clear of Reynolds and paid the price for his error by
tying up in the last steps. He clocked 43.44, the fastest 400
time ever run on U.S. soil and the third fastest anywhere.
Reynolds broke 44 for the first time since 1988, with 43.91. "I
can give him an arm," said Reynolds of the gap he surrendered
over that third 100 meters, "but I can't give him two."
In making his second Olympic team at 32, Reynolds was one of a
remarkable number of older champions who seemed rejuvenated in
these torrid trials. Atlanta's humidity was palpable.
Temperatures, even in deep magnolia shade, reached 100[degrees]
(113[degrees] on the track). Ozone levels rose as well. "The
athletes may be the lucky ones," said The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution in an editorial headlined AIRING ATLANTA'S
DIRTY SECRET. "When the competition is finished, they'll leave
Atlanta. The rest of us live here."
In this cauldron, younger pretenders seemed to boil off, leaving
an Olympic team of graying greats. Lynn Jennings, 36 on July 1,
and Mary Slaney, 37, went one-two in the women's 5,000 meters.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee, 34, was able to make only one attempt in
the long jump, with both her strained thighs wrapped tight. "I
prayed that if I pulled, let it be when I'm already in the air,"
she said. The jump, 23'1 1/4", held up.
Regina Jacobs, 32, made her third U.S. team by winning the
women's 1,500 in 4:08.67. Behind her, 1988 Olympian Vicki Huber
had come into the stretch fourth. "I said to myself, You can get
third," Huber would say later. "It's amazing how long the
conversation in my head was." Huber ran down Amy Wickus for the
precious place (only the top three make the team).
And there was the essence of gray, Johnny Gray, the 1992 Olympic
bronze medalist at 800 meters and the U.S.-record holder at that
distance. He won the 800 in 1:44.00 on his 36th birthday. Gray
has run 1:44.09 or better for 12 years in a row.
Was it coincidence that leathery old Olympians dealt best with
the conditions? "It's the same for everybody," is what you
always hear, but of course it's not the same. Athletes who had
not heat-trained their systems to pour out sweat in buckets
without losing the mineral electrolytes that keep muscles from
firing on their own suffered fateful spasms.
The decathletes, who were out in the heat longest, were at
greatest risk, yet three of them performed magnificently. Dan
O'Brien won with 8,726 points. Steve Fritz was second with
8,636. Third was Chris Huffins, whose 8,546 points were the
product of seven personal bests in the 10 events. If there was a
secret to their indestructibility, it was the intravenous drip.
O'Brien made the IV seem a lurid pleasure. "It cools from the
inside out," he said, shivering. "Oh, my core is feeling good. I
think I broke the world record for IVs. Three in this arm, one
Since the warmup track was half a mile away, the athletes, once
limber and ready to race, had to sit and chill and retighten on
a little green air-conditioned bus. Sprinters cramped before,
during and after their races. Carl Lewis (35 on July 1) was
running in the men's 100 final when both his calves knotted, and
he finished eighth. Yet what cramps took from Lewis in the 100,
they gave back in the long jump. Not his own cramps, but those
of 33-year-old Mike Conley. In the last round world-record
holder Mike Powell, 32, rescued himself from a hideous day by
leaping 27'6 1/2" and going from sixth to first. That shoved
Lewis (27'2 3/4") into third and Conley into fourth. Conley had
one jump left. But a few steps into his run his left hamstring
informed him that he no longer had its support. Conley hopped
into the pit and gave a little wave, his grace fooling many into
thinking he had deferred to Lewis. But later his voice was
hoarse with emotion when he said that if he had knocked Lewis
off his fifth Olympic team, why that was the idea of this
supremely cutthroat competition, wasn't it?
It was, and in such high stakes lay danger and difficulty for
the endurance athletes. One move, that's all a 5,000 or 10,000
runner got. Then the heat swarmed in. With a kilometer to go in
the men's 5,000, Bob Kennedy and Reuben Reina had a 20-meter
lead on the field. Reina let Kennedy break away. Under normal
circumstances Reina would have held on to second or third. In
Atlanta he was dead on his feet before the last lap and finished
15th. "You have to respect the heat," said Kennedy, who won by
10.52 seconds, "not fear it."
Fear may be the correct response for paramedics at the Games. In
the men's 10,000, which was won by Todd Williams, two-time
Olympic marathoner Ed Eyestone was holding third with less than
three laps left. In the next 600 meters Eyestone faded to fourth
and, showing the classic signs of heatstroke, ended up
staggering, disoriented, onto the infield and motioning for aid.
Finally a photographer reached him and summoned help.
Much of this suffering took place before a sea of empty blue
seats. Even when there were 10,000 or 15,000 spectators in the
83,100-seat stadium, it never looked it because many were under
the upper deck, hiding from the sun. This made the more
thoughtful Olympians imagine that they were holding out a torch
and finding no one of the next generation there to take it.
Lewis, cooling down after the long jump, alone but for a pair of
wheeling bats in the soft midnight air above the practice track,
pointed out that trials tickets, food and parking "cost a family
$100 a day." He looked at the surrounding neighborhood, one into
which athletes were forcefully advised not to go. "Kids don't
need money to run," he said. "They need inspiration. On TV, it's
strange, but you're not real to them. Kids need to see and touch
and know that you're flesh and blood. So they should be here,
tens of thousands of them. We're keeping our sport in a bottle
for the people who love it. We have to open up the bottle and
give the sport back to America, so America can embrace it. They
should have filled the place even if everyone got in free."
It seemed too late to throw open the doors, but then Johnson,
Atlanta's own Gwen Torrence and a pair of heart-wrenching
hurdlers compelled 30,141 spectators to come out Sunday for the
meet's hottest, fastest day. Torrence, running on a sore left
thigh she hurt before winning the 100 on June 15, started well
in the 200 but hit the stretch no better than third. Carlette
Guidry muscled on to win from Dannette Young, 22.14 seconds to
22.18, leaving one spot. Inger Miller, daughter of 1968 Olympic
100-meter silver medalist Lennox Miller, outleaned Torrence for
it. "Leg didn't hurt," Torrence said later. "I can't put it on
anything. I don't think I wanted it as bad as the 100."
Not wanting it was not the problem for Jack Pierce. In the semis
of the 110 hurdles Pierce, the 1992 Olympic bronze medalist, had
clocked a personal best, 12.94, just .03 from the world record.
"It felt so fluid," he said, "I thought if I pushed a little in
the final....I wanted the world record and to make the team, in
That shift in focus proved disastrous. In the final Pierce
started so fast that he caught his lead leg under the top of the
first hurdle, then slammed to a stop against the second. Allen
Johnson, the '95 world champion, shot by, thinking of nothing
but hurdling, and finished in 12.92, equaling the U.S. record.
So it was left to Michael Johnson to keep his priorities
straight. "The objectives never changed," he said after his
blazing 19.66. "First to make the team, then to win and then, if
all went well, to break the 200 record." Johnson went on,
patiently detailing how his coach, Hart, had gotten him to
improve his form in the race's first steps because he had a
tendency to pop up before he had fully accelerated. Suddenly you
noticed that several Atlantans--female and so nicely dressed
that they surely had come down from one of the air-conditioned
corporate skyboxes built in anticipation of the post-Olympic
surrender of the stadium to the Braves--were attending to his
"So," said Johnson finally. "It's great to have it broken. Now
the Olympics will be a chance to make some history." He rose to
go. The women put their heads together and declared him to be
So it's still true, what everyone from Scarlett O'Hara to Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. has taught us. In Atlanta, the quality of
one's charm depends a great deal on the quality of one's