Johnson gets world mark in a breeze Wind doesn't nullify record 19.66 in final of Olympic trials 200

Lewis finishes distant 5th

Sport's oldest record falls after 17 years

June 24, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Michael Johnson left Olympic Stadium on Saturday night knowing how close he had come to breaking the oldest record in track and field. Only the slightest of hot summer breezes had kept Johnson from going into the record books and erasing Italy's Pietro Mennea from memory.

Johnson's time of 19.70 seconds in the semifinals of the 200 meters at the U.S. Olympic trials had been faster than the 19.72 seconds Mennea ran at a meet in Mexico 17 years ago. But Johnson also knew he would get another chance. Maybe in the final, maybe next month in the Olympic Games.

"I knew I could run faster," Johnson said yesterday.

He did.

In an electrifying finish to the eight-day event, Johnson showed why he is considered the fastest man in the world. With the kind of start he didn't get in the final of the 400 last week -- Johnson said it cost him a chance at Butch Reynolds' world record -- and with the kind of finish that had eluded him throughout his races here, Johnson ran right into history.

With the advice of his longtime coach, Clyde Hart, who told Johnson to keep running 10 meters past the finish line, the 28-year-old Texan didn't stop until he had a record of 19.66 seconds. Johnson pumped his arms and then listened for the crowd, waiting to see if the wind was legal.

"I judged the crowd's reaction," Johnson said later. "If the wind was allowable, I wouldn't hear the moans and groans I heard Saturday. I heard them yelling and screaming, so I knew I had the record."

The wind was measured at 2.7 meters per second during the semifinals, seven-tenths over the legal limit. Yesterday it was 1.7, and Johnson, who glanced back at the clock to see his time as he crossed the finish line, was able to celebrate more earnestly.

He pumped his fists, raised two victory signs and went to the stands to hug Hart. He also got a hug from Jeff Williams, who finished second in 20.03, and a handshake from Michael Marsh, who finished third in 20.04 and was the 1992 Olympic champion in the event. Carl Lewis, who finished a distant fifth in 20.20, gave Johnson a perfunctory pat on the back. Johnson barely noticed and walked away.

"It was a great race. Michael Johnson ran a great race," said Lewis, who qualified in the long jump but failed in his attempts at both 100 and 200 meters. "He did his job, and my hat's off to him."

Joked Williams, who made his first Olympic team: "I scared Michael into a world record."

Johnson said he came to the track yesterday in search of three things: a place in the field for the Olympic 200, his 21st straight victory in a 200 final and, if things fell into place, a world record.

But Hart, who has coached Johnson since he was an unknown freshman at Baylor University, said, "We weren't going for the record, but in the back of our minds we felt something special could happen."

It did. Hart had worked on Johnson getting off to a quicker start than he did in the 400 with his first eight steps. Ever the diligent student, Johnson was out front by the turn. Around the curve, he distanced himself from Marsh and Williams, then dusted the field down the stretch.

Asked to describe what it was like to race against Johnson yesterday, Marsh was at a loss for words.

"I didn't see it," said Marsh, who made the U.S. team in the 100 and 200. "I don't know if it was because he was so far ahead or because I wasn't paying attention. But with 19.66, he had to be going fairly fast."

Johnson knew that too, but he didn't know how fast. The difference in yesterday's race was that he finished strong. In previous races here, Johnson seemed to shut his motor down in the last 30 meters. It even seemed to happen in the semifinals. But not this time. Johnson knew he had made the team. He knew he would win.

The only thing left was the world record.

"It was a perfect day," said Johnson, whose 19.72 on Saturday was the third-fastest time ever run, the second-fastest wind-aided. "I knew I had a lot of good competitors. The crowd was great. I wanted to make sure I gave them their money's worth. It feels great."

With the record, Johnson's place in history is secured. Mennea's record had become to track and field what Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak is to baseball, what Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game is to basketball. Because he ran it at altitude, most believed Mennea's record would stay in the books forever.

"It's not an easy record to break," Johnson said about 45 minutes after breaking it. "It wasn't that the time was so fast, but the 200's a funny event. If there's any kind of wind, at some point it's going to be in your face. In this country, it's always been the 400 and the 100. We tend to put a little emphasis on those events."

But nobody figured on a human race car like Johnson, a man who has been chased by the ghosts of his mediocre results in high school and by the disappointment of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, when a case of food poisoning left him virtually helpless.

The way he ran the past week, only another intestinal problem could prevent Johnson from becoming the first man to win the 200 and 400 in the same Olympics. He certainly won't be held back by any lack of fortitude.

"I feel like I can run 19.5," he said.

Somewhere in Rome, a university professor named Pietro Mennea is a forgotten man.

Record sprint

Evolution of the men's 200-meter world record since the introduction of automatic timing in seconds:

Runner .......... Year .. Time

Michael Johnson .. '96 .. 19.66

Pietro Mennea .... '79 .. 19.72

Tommie Smith ..... '68 .. 19.83

Pub Date: 6/24/96

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