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200m and 400m
“This man surely is not human,” said BBC commentator David Coleman, as Michael Johnson won the 200m in a world record time of 19.32 seconds in Atlanta. How supreme can a sprinter be? That was the question around Johnson. He ruled the land of fast-twitch fibres in a way that had not been seen since Jesse Owens, 60 years earlier.
Atlanta could not have loomed any larger. “It is extremely rare for any athlete to compete in an Olympics on home soil,” he says now, ahead of a summer commentating on the London Games for the BBC. “The timings just have to come together. It clicked in my mind that this was going to be a great opportunity in my career.”
The youngest of five children – “the nerdy one” – of a truck driver and a teacher from Dallas, Johnson had run both the 200m and the 400m since high school. He ran them like no one else, with a stiff, upright posture and short, piston-like strides. He also won like no one else. By the end of 1995, he was the world champion at both distances. But the Olympics eluded him. Food poisoning in 1992 restricted Johnson to a single team gold. He missed 1988 with a broken leg.
Atlanta offered much more than a chance to put things right. No man had ever won the Olympic 200m and 400m, and Johnson knew he could do it. “You have to weigh and balance the risk and the reward,” he says. “I believed in my ability. The idea of going to Olympic Games on home soil and making history and doing something that no one had ever done before was very attractive to me.”
The problem was the schedule. The heats overlapped. In 100 years it simply had not been envisaged that someone could win both. In December 1995, Johnson petitioned the International Amateur Athletic Federation to change the running order. They did.
Johnson tried to stay as calm as he could. “I believed that I could do it,” he says, “but I also believed that if I was unsuccessful that life wasn’t going to end for me. I wouldn’t be the first person that tried something and didn’t succeed. It happens every day.” In the Olympic 200m trials, he broke the world record. Jesse Owens’ widow was in the crowd. She wrote him a letter, saying that he reminded her of her husband.
Johnson turned up in Atlanta wearing golden shoes. As the Games got off to a shocking start – two people died when a bomb went off – he stayed apart: in a hotel rather than the Olympic Village. He watched television, played video games, and stretched.
In the end, the finals were separated by three days. Apart from a tiny stumble in the 200m, Johnson did not put a foot wrong. “There is no kind of romantic feeling of ‘Oh I feel them fading away from me… ’” he says. “I’m just executing my race and I’m heading down the home stretch with 80m to go and I know they are behind me. That is the point in the race where fatigue starts to set in. Your arms are getting tired. They don’t want to raise up as high each time. Your stride is starting to get shorter. You are having to fight against your own desires from your body to basically shut down.”
But the pictures tell a different story. Johnson crosses the line. His face – for an instant – explodes. When he broke the world record in the 200m, the other athletes just shook their heads. Johnson was crouching, his hand over his face. “That moment was, you know, several emotions going on at the same time,” he says. “A lot of different things going on at the same time.” Human after all. He raced for four more years. When he retired in 2000, to live in San Francisco with his wife and son, he had 18 medals from major championships. They were all gold.