Michael Johnson, the Olympic Sprinter With an Inner Greek God
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because some performances simply stand the test of time.
Wearing gold track spikes and taking a deep breath, the 200-meter world record holder knelt into position, set his feet in the blocks and carefully placed his hands. Then, just as he had done before coasting to gold and an Olympic record in the 400-meter race three days earlier, he waited for the call and the starting gun’s bang.
Questions loomed at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta over whether the 6-foot-1-inch, 175-pound runner could become the first man to complete a “double” — victories in both the 200- and 400-meter sprints — as he had done at the World Championships in Sweden the year before. He wasn’t a 100-meter sprinter and therefore was sometimes denied the moniker “fastest in the world.” But just days after the world had been rocked by the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, the crowds — and the nation — needed something spectacular. And much like the gold-winged Hermes, the supersonic messenger between the gods of Olympia and the mortal world, Michael Johnson was ready to deliver.
A hush descended on the stands as most of the 85,000 spectators jumped to their feet. “You could just feel it in the stadium,” says reporter Elliott Almond, who covered the event for The Seattle Times, remembering the palpable buzz. Johnson’s eyes gazed ahead with barely a blink, a gold chain dangling from his neck. When the gun fired, the Olympian’s start was stunningly strong, so much so that it even took him by surprise. It was “a little better than I expected,” he recalled, and “kind of caught me off guard.” This caused him to stumble slightly as he reached his fourth step, which he thinks cost him a few hundredths of a second. Already owning a world record of 19.66, Johnson had prepared for and visualized the perfect race, believing it would be required to grasp another gold. He quickly regained control and drove forward, elevating to his trademark upright running form.
Johnson’s path into America’s collective heart, and the history books, needed to be a sensational performance.
Despite a big marketing campaign, not to mention the highly visible golden boots — designed by Nike, appropriately named for the Greek goddess of victory — Johnson didn’t enter the games as the most celebrated runner. Unlike American Carl Lewis before him or Jamaican Usain Bolt today, Johnson “didn’t handle being the public face of the sport well,” says Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated, also on hand that evening to see the race. He seemed always to be scowling and “didn’t even smile easily,” Layden says. So his path into America’s collective heart, and the history books, would depend on a sensational performance. As Johnson hit the 100-meter mark at the turn of the burnt-red track, he’d already captured the lead ahead of the straightaway and was still gaining. Races like these are usually tight, with no one assuming a clear lead, but Johnson’s plan to pressure his rivals early worked. “He was so profoundly fast and ahead of everybody,” says Almond.
“He’s going to win by miles!” a television commentator declared. Not even a late twinge in his hamstring could keep Johnson from the record-setting pace, and he exploded through the finish line with the unimaginable time of 19.32 seconds, shaving more than 3/10 of a second from his previous record and shocking everyone. “The margin from first to second … was astounding,” says Layden.
Johnson finished the race, looked up to see his time, and began jumping in celebration. The next day, the 24-year-old Texan compared the speed he’d achieved to the feeling of “a go-kart going downhill.” It would be far from Johnson’s last triumph — he’d set the still-unbeaten world record in the 400-meter of 43.18 in 1999 and would go on to defend his 400-meter crown at the Sydney Games in 2000. But due to injuries, Atlanta would be his last 200-meter race of much significance.
Johnson bowed out in 2000, retiring after the Olympics Down Under, and today gives motivational speeches and makes occasional TV appearances. The Baylor University alum, 48, lives with his wife, Armine, and son, Sebastian, in Northern California and mentors young athletes. He’s also begun consulting with Premier League soccer team Arsenal in London. Johnson was elected to the National Track & Field Hall of Fame in 2004, where his ’96 Olympic performance in the 200-meter was named the sport’s top moment of the last quarter-century, even though Usain Bolt subsequently snagged the 200-meter record with a time of 19.19.
Johnson’s legacy, like a Greek myth, rests on a crucial moment in 1996 when — with a nation desperate for a sign of greatness — an athlete with seemingly godlike abilities arose victorious, inspiring future generations to shatter limits and race for the finish.