Johnson's record 200 run falls to light wind Time of 19.70 seconds is not made official

June 23, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- The television camera here at the U.S. Olympic trials caught Carl Lewis watching Michael Johnson's opening heat of the 200 meters Friday night at Olympic Stadium. As Johnson's lead grew larger, Lewis rolled his eyes in disbelief and shook in head in mock horror.

Just as every country coming to play men's basketball at next month's Olympic Games will be fighting for second place behind the Dream Team, every sprinter in Johnson's two events may be going for silver, not gold. Johnson has already made the U.S. team in the 400 meters and tonight will likely make the team in the 200 meters as well.

"Definitely the pressure is on and the job is only halfway done," Johnson, 28, said last week. "But now that I'm on the team, that is a relief and now I have some of it over with. It's been somewhat difficult to follow my coach Clyde Hart's instructions to just be a 400-meter runner and not think about the others. But after winning the 400 with the race that I did, it gives me confidence going into the 200."

It certainly showed yesterday. Johnson blistered the competition in his semifinal heat and nearly broke Pietro Mennea's 17-year-old record of 19.72 seconds. Only a hardly-discernible but measurable wind of 2.7 meters per second prevented Johnson's time of 19.70 seconds from going into the record books. It was the second-fastest wind-aided 200 of all time.

Johnson reacted as if he had broken the record, punching his fists in the air as the crowd roared in celebration. When asked later if he felt any appreciable wind, Johnson said he hadn't. Asked if he was disappointed by the outcome, Johnson said, "Definitely. Hopefully, the wind will cooperate tomorrow and I'll be ready to run another good time."

Yesterday's performance was merely a continuation of what Johnson started with his run in Wednesday's 400-meter final. Then, Johnson had the second-worst reaction time getting out of the blocks among the competitors. But he made up for it and crushed a field that included world record-holder Butch Reynolds and 1992 Olympic champion Quincy Watts. His winning time of 42.44 was only .15 of a second off Reynolds' record.

As easy as the 400 was, as easy as his opening heat in the 200 was, Johnson expects it to get more difficult. Yesterday's quarterfinal and semifinal produced the same result, but were a lot tougher on Johnson, mentally and physically. "In the 400, I can go in and make decisions during the race," said Johnson. "In the 200, I have to be a lot more focused before I go into the race. I have to be a lot more aggressive."

It is with a quiet sort of aggression that Johnson chases his place in history. Trying to become the first man ever to win the 200 and 400 in the same Olympic competition, Johnson is respectful of those who have preceded him as well as those who are trying to stop him from completing his double -- at least in public. Watts hinted that what you see of Johnson isn't quite what you get when the spotlight goes off.

"I don't appreciate some of the things he's been saying," Watts said after finishing last in the 400 meters. "In Barcelona he was supposed to be a sure thing, then he had his problems. I told him as a friend back then to come run with us in the relay. But now that he's on top, he's forgotten about the rest of us."

The well-chronicled problems Johnson experienced during the 1992 Olympics -- the bout of food poisoning a couple of days before the 200, and his failure to reach the final -- have been the driving force behind his remarkable performance the past two years. He won two straight world championships, and his margin of victory in last year's 400-meter final in Gothenberg, Sweden was the largest in the history of the event.

But a more deeply-rooted motivation dates back to when Johnson was growing up in Dallas, where he was considered nothing more than a good high school sprinter who had the potential of running relays in college. His flat-footed, back-erect running style was reminiscent of the legendary Jesse Owens, but Johnson was thought to be a tad slow, even by his high school coach. "He runs like a statue," said Joel Ezar, coach at Skyline High School.

Nobody questions Johnson's running style anymore. In fact, should he complete his double here next month, there will likely be hundreds of high school sprinters who'll go back to school wanting to be like Michael. Though polite when asked about his mechanics, Johnson still tires of the question.

"Same answer to the same question we've been asked over the past six years," he said. "It's still a good question. It's just my natural running style. And no coach has ever tried to change it, and that's probably due to the fact that I had only two coaches. About five years ago, we realized that it was actually a benefit as far as the races I'm running.

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