Johnson breezes to gold in 400 Olympic-record 43.49 short of world mark

Atlanta Olympics

July 30, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Michael Johnson won another race last night at Olympic Stadium. He broke another record. And he earned his first individual Olympic gold medal. As usual, it was almost too easy for him.

Now comes the hard part.

Johnson's victory was his 55th straight in a 400-meter final. But his time of 43.49 seconds, which was an Olympic record but not a world record, indicated to some that going after a piece of track-and-field history is more important than the record to the 28-year-old from Dallas.

His place in the record books, as well as in the legacy left by the 1996 Centennial Games, will only be secured when he finishes his much-celebrated attempt at becoming the first man to win both the 400 and 200 meters.

After a day off today, Johnson will resume his quest when the preliminaries in the 200 begin tomorrow.

"A lot of people were talking about a world record," said Johnson, whose time was .20 of a second slower than Butch Reynolds' 8-year-old record and .04 slower than he ran here in last month's Olympic trials. "I'll have other chances to break the world record, but I might not have other chances to win the 400 gold medal in the Olympics."

Johnson, whose time was .01 of a second better than the Olympic record set by Quincy Watts in 1992, had all but vanquished the latest field of dreamers by the first turn. Though he didn't switch gears and had all but shut off his motor by the time he reached the finish line, as he did in Sunday's semifinals, he didn't crank it up, either. But Johnson said he wasn't conserving energy for the 200.

"If I run 43.4 and get there without running hard, I must be the

man," he said. "Every time I've run in the last three years, I've had the opportunity to break the record. It was there tonight, but it just didn't happen."

If Johnson was pushed at all last night -- he wasn't, considering his 10-yard margin of victory -- it certainly wasn't to the extent that he will be by the time Friday's 200-meter final comes around.

Instead of British veteran Roger Black, who overcame knee surgery last year to win the 400 silver, there will be Frankie Fredericks of Namibia, who recently ended Johnson's streak in the 200. Instead of Davis Kamoga of Uganda, who won his country's first Olympic medal in 24 years, there might be fellow American Jeff Williams.

"The only gold medal Michael will win [in the 200] will be made of platinum," Williams said, half-jokingly, during the trials.

Johnson has heard the jokes, and he isn't laughing.

"If they keep saying those things about me being vulnerable, they're making a big mistake," Johnson said last night.

Johnson keeps planning to to be decked from neck to toe in gold.

"I felt good about my chances for gold here," he said. "I guess it worked out."

Black and Kamoga, as well as the other pretenders in the race, must have thought they were up against a one-man Dream Team. Black, 31, knew that if he tried to challenge Johnson, he would have run out of gas by the final turn. Kamoga, 28, knew he didn't have the speed to stay with Johnson.

"For me to get silver is as big a personal achievement as winning gold is for Michael," said Black. "This is a gold medal for me."

Said Kamoga, who had never raced before in a world-class final: "If I get some speed, I might be able to challenge him."

Despite not breaking the record, the hype heading into Friday's 200-meter final has began. But last night provided closure on what was one of the more difficult periods in Johnson's career. It started four years ago in Barcelona, Spain, when a bad case of food poisoning hurt his performance.

Johnson, who was ranked No. 1 in the world in both events at the time, was eliminated in the semifinals of the 200 and never made it to the heats of the 400. Though he later helped the U.S. 4 x 400 relay team win gold and set an Olympic record, the next four years became Johnson's grand obsession.

"Over the past three years, everyone has asked, 'Does this make up for '92,' " Johnson said. "Going out today and winning the gold medal does make up for '92. It's a great feeling to be able to say I'm an individual gold medal winner."

Now comes the hard part.

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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