It was the most heralded event of the Olympics, the heart of
every preview, the point of so much anticipation. Even though he
had done it in the world championships, everybody wanted to see
Michael Johnson win the double here. And it was more than just
the disco shoes.
True, no man had ever won both the 200- and 400-meter races in
the Olympics. But since 1990, Johnson had owned these two
events, though in Barcelona he didn't run the 400, and any hope
of winning the 200 was spoiled by a rotten ham. Now, without the
burden of food poisoning, he had easily won the 400 and was
favored to win the 200. His losing to Frankie Fredericks just
four weeks earlier might have restored some intrigue to the
event. But mostly, Johnson was a one-man Dream Team.
Thoughts of competition were further discouraged during his week
of 200 qualifying. Each heat was about the same. He'd break
ahead at the turn, accelerate briefly and then, after a casual
look over his shoulder to check the field, lapse into a rolling
gait that would still get him across the line first. Not a few
people invoked the image of a dragster popping its chute.
So why the intense attraction? Johnson's mastery in these
events, well established coming in, was actually growing. His
famously focused look in the blocks, the slap-slap of his shiny
gold shoes, even the rhythmic sway of that thick gold chain
across his chest, the coasting finish--all so familiar. What
were people coming to see, exactly?
August 4, 1996
Here's what: the focused look, the slap-slap, the swaying, the
burst around the turn, the continued acceleration (no flaps down
here) through the straightaway, the ridiculously stiff-backed
passage into history. One look over the shoulder, but only at
the finish and only to glance at the clock. A new world record,
just as he had suspected.
As it flashed on the board, 80,000 people in the stadium
remembered to breathe. Third-place finisher Ato Boldon of
Trinidad, who had earlier insisted that the title of fastest man
alive belongs to the 100 winner, now turned and bowed at
Johnson's golden feet, unworthy. In awe, Boldon walked to the
finish-line clock and pointed to the time, 19.32, frozen there.
Johnson, in two stabs (including his record-breaking race in the
Olympic trials), had now lowered a 17-year-old record by four
tenths of a second--an eternity in this race. Who could believe
Everyone and no one. The record made sense, of course. You
couldn't be too surprised. But watching it--the look, the
slap-slap, the swaying--you were stunned all the same. Finally,
you too remembered to breathe.