When the London 2012 Olympic Games come to England in the summer, a certain Usain Bolt will be expected to break two sprint world records in front of a global audience. Back in 1996 Michael Johnson had to deal with similar expectation, but what he produced still left everybody who paid witness utterly awestruck…
“Can anyone possibly beat this man? There are two, possibly three who think they can,” states commentator David Coleman moments before Michael Johnson creates Olympic history at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
“The Olympic Games are not about world records, they’re about competition,” he adds.
On this occasion Coleman is wrong, for it was what Johnson achieved in the moments immediately after those words that ensured his name will be scribed into Olympic folklore long after his tippy-tap feet leave the planet. The Olympic 200m final, August 1, 1996 in Atlanta was one of the few times when the Games were not about the taking part, they were not even about the competition.
They were solely the stage on which Johnson could redefine the perceived limits to which human beings could aspire, setting a world record of 19.32 seconds every bit as astounding as Usain Bolt’s 9.58s in the 100m 12 years later. Perhaps fittingly it was Bolt who also eventually broke Johnson’s 200m marker (running 19.30s) – after others had tried and failed for 12 years.
Stylistically, Johnson was not out of any textbook. Coleman even notes during replays of his incredible feat that the American’s style is “not majestic”. In terms of efficiency and technique Coleman was right, Johnson did not tick the boxes of the tried and trusted knees-high and strides-long formula, but there was majesty is his poise, grace in the way he floated across the track and a serene nature to the way he rested into his stride.
To watch Michael Johnson run was to watch an athlete like no other. He took rapid mini-strides, tickling rather than pounding the track, while his posture was so vertical that he leant fractionally backwards. His chest was proud and to the fore, and he left all in attendance wondering what times he might run if he “put his back into it”.
In all Johnson won four Olympic golds in a stellar career, a tally that surely would have been greater but for a bout of food poisoning that spoilt his bid at the Barcelona Games in 1992. He was the world No. 1 at 200m and 400m going into the Games, having won the world 200m title in 1991, posting the largest victory margin in a world 200m final (0.33s) since Jesse Owens in 1936. His body unwilling in Barcelona, Johnson merely had to settle for gold in the 4x400m relay.
By the time the next Olympics arrived in Atlanta, Johnson was in the form of his life. At the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg he won the 200m and 400m Double, becoming the first man to do so in the 20th century. Then, at the US Olympic Trials, he finally broke Pietro Mennea’s 17-year-old 200m record of 19.72s, reducing it to 19.66s.
In four years Johnson had used the pain of being robbed at the 1992 Games to propel him to break new boundaries in a sport he now dominated at two different disciplines.
“What I did was each year I had a goal. Ultimately, I did achieve a lot more than I first set out to do but I took some really small steps along the way,” said Johnson, shedding light on his mindset. “When you want to be ranked No. 1 in the world, when you want to be Olympic gold medallist and you want to make history you’re really careful setting your goals along the way. You take small steps instead of having a goal that’s so far out that it starts to seem unachievable.”
Small steps metaphorically and small steps in a literal sense eventually led Johnson to the moment that usurped all others in his career: The 200m final in Atlanta. With the 400m gold medal already in the pocket – won by almost a second from Great Britain’s Roger Black, this was Johnson’s golden moment.
A sparkling pair of gold Nike running shoes marked the occasion, demanding a place in Olympic history almost as significant as Johnson’s time itself. Boxed away as sporting memorabilia, the shoes weighed around three ounces, and were every bit as light as Johnson’s own footsteps.
Frankie Fredericks and Ato Boldon were the men to whom Coleman was referring when he said “two, possibly three, think they can [beat Johnson]”. Fredericks and Boldon were world class athletes, the former winning four Olympic silver medals in addition to world gold in his celebrated career, while the latter also won the world 100m title in addition to three bronzes and a silver at Olympic level.
However, as the race hit the straight the eye was drawn to just one man, heavy gold chain swinging from side to side, eyes a blaze of focus, feet barely disturbing the track beneath him.
“Johnson is going away… Johnson by YARDS!” roared Coleman in one of his most famous pieces of commentary. “Fredericks second, Boldon third… and the world record has gone!”
What followed was a 14-second period of silence in commentary, a period that allowed every viewer around the globe to digest what they had just witnessed. Johnson had smashed his own record by over three tenths of a second, and finally Coleman uttered the words all else were thinking.
“This man is surely not human.”
Johnson, usually so relaxed, exploded into a flame of pure emotion. Fredericks wore a look that simply said “too good”, while Boldon went a step further by bowing to Johnson.
“19.32, that’s not a time, it sounds like my dad’s birthday,” Boldon quipped.
“I can’t describe what it feels like to break the record by that much,” Johnson said when he finally settled back into his laid-back Texan demeanour. “I thought 19.5 was possible, but 19.3 is unbelievable.”
What happened next…
Suddenly Johnson was the face of athletics, known around the globe as “the world’s fastest man.” Every minute detail became known about the American, not least the fact that one of his feet was half a size shorter than the other. A place in the US Track and Field Hall of Fame awaited, but first people wanted to know if Johnson truly was the fastest man alive. In June 1997 a special 150m race between Johnson and Donovan Bailey – the 100m world record holder – was held in Toronto. Half the track was curved, half was straight. In the end a satisfactory answer was not reached when Johnson pulled up with a hamstring problem, but it did little to harm the reputation of a man who was labelled “Superman” for the remainder of his career.