Here was pure movement, as sweet and as fast as a man can run.
Like a go-kart speeding downhill, blowing swift wind into a
child's face--that is the way Michael Johnson described the
feeling. His now familiar gold shoes flashed through the harsh
artificial light of Olympic Stadium, the chain around his neck
bounced rhythmically off his chest, and his arms hacked angrily
at the thick summer air. The finish-line clock froze an
This is an article from the Aug. 2, 1996 issue
This was the answer. To the agony of a seemingly certain gold
medal lost to bad food four summers ago at the Barcelona Games.
To the pressure--"My picture on the cover of all the magazines
when I hadn't won a gold medal yet," Johnson said--of achieving
an unearthly goal. To the unseemly verbiage of this very week,
in which a smart, considerate man had allowed himself to be
drawn into a messy controversy. To the most disturbing
suggestion of all: that the first double in the 200 and 400 in
men's Olympic track history had become a given, and that its
achievement would be anticlimactic.
Yes, the only possible response lay in performance itself. And
this has always been Johnson's most eloquent tongue. He won his
second gold medal last night, adding the 200 to his 400 gold of
three nights earlier. He did so with a flourish that was burned
into the minds of all who witnessed it, obliterating his own
five-week-old world record with a time of 19.32 seconds. His
previous record had been 19.66, and before that, the record of
Italy's Pietro Mennea, 19.72, had stood for 17 long years.
"I thought when Michael Johnson ran 19.66 it was incredible,"
said silver medalist Frankie Fredericks of Namibia. "For 19.32,
I don't know what to say." Sitting next to Johnson at a postrace
press conference, bronze medalist Ato Boldon of Trinidad and
Tobago said, "I accepted the fact that the fastest man in the
world was the winner of the 100 meters. Now I believe the
fastest man alive is sitting to my left."
It was just past nine o'clock when Johnson folded himself into
his starting blocks in a corner of the stadium beneath the
Olympic flame. His triumph had been magnificently preceded by
the sublime Marie-Jose Perec of France, who won the women's 200
in 22.12, completing her own 200-400 double. Ahead of Perec in
the procession to the medal stand had been Derrick Adkins of the
U.S., an intermediate hurdler who attended college only a few
miles away at Georgia Tech and who last night won a gold in the
400 hurdles, in 47.54. And after Johnson's epic gold, Dan
O'Brien would complete a long climb back from an Olympic trials
failure in 1992 by winning the decathlon. Yet Johnson's victory
would tower over everything.
He had been the dominant 200 and 400 runner in the world for
four years when he doubled at the '95 World Championships. But
his ultimate goal was to double in Atlanta. "I've always wanted
to bring the two events together in a way that nobody else had
ever done," Johnson said last night. "This sums up what my
career is about. This is the biggest accomplishment of my life."
To accommodate his quest for the double, he had petitioned to
have the Olympic schedule changed, adding to the load on his
broad back. Then this week, when Carl Lewis stole the spotlight
from Johnson and his 400 victory by winning his ninth gold
medal, in the long jump, Johnson bristled in his postrace words,
a graceless departure. Last night, however, he made all kinds of
In the set position Johnson felt a familiar fear. "I was afraid
I wouldn't get this gold medal, that I wouldn't make history,"
he said. "For me that's good. I like to be nervous." His warmup
at a track three blocks from the stadium had been so sharp that
his coach, Clyde Hart, had to slow him down.
Now he rose at the gun, stumbled slightly on his fourth step and
then relaxed, putting himself into an ethereal zone. At 80
meters he accelerated with ungodly power. "I saw this blue
blur," said Boldon. "I thought, There goes first." Fredericks,
who had ended Johnson's 21-race winning streak in Oslo on July
5, was passed next. Then Johnson found a gear in which no man
had run. "When you come off the turn into the straightaway, you
can tell how fast you're going," Johnson said. "I knew I was
running faster than I had ever run in my life."
Johnson's stride is a low, stiff-backed scamper, the subject of
much study. But in the closing meters his knees seemed to float
upward uncommonly, his feet sailing over the hard, orange
surface. His facial features were twisted grotesquely, and at
the line he glanced at the clock and then threw his arms toward
the heavens. Boldon bowed in homage. Fredericks, whose 19.68 was
the fastest 200 time ever by a man not named Michael, embraced
Johnson and smiled as if acknowledging the folly of his chase.
"Nineteen-five, I always liked that magic number," said Hart.
"He jumped right over that." Asked how long the record might
stand, Hart replied, "When does Michael run again?"
Among the first to find Johnson in his celebration was O'Brien,
who embraced Johnson and then returned to his own business,
throwing the javelin in his ninth event. His no-height in the
pole vault at the '92 trials had deprived him of an opportunity
for gold in Barcelona. In recent years he has seldom felt the
breath of an opponent, but even after throwing the javelin a
personal-best 219'6", he went into the 1,500 only 209 points
ahead of Germany's Frank Busemann. That meant he would have to
finish within 32 seconds of Busemann in the final event.
The 1,500 is O'Brien's weakest event, but he tore through the
last 200 meters to finish in 4:45.89, his best time since
running 4:42.10 nearly four years ago in setting a world record.
He finished with an Olympic-record 8,824 points, the
sixth-highest total in history. "I expected to be here," O'Brien
said. "That's what I've thought about every year for the last
four years, winning gold in Atlanta. If there was a day when I
didn't think about it, that might have been the day I quit."
After O'Brien finished, his face, like Johnson's, was a mask of
discomfort. He leaned over with his hands on his knees. Then he
dropped to the track, a few short steps from where Johnson had
knelt in prayerful thanks 90 minutes earlier. Alone and
finished, O'Brien bowed his head and wept.