In a flash, Johnson reaches for gold and grabs glory ATLANTA OLYMPICS

August 02, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- Michael Johnson wrote the script, rehearsed the lines, even scheduled his performances in his quest to become the leading man of the Centennial Olympics.

But in the end, it wasn't enough for him to accomplish the unprecedented feat of winning the men's 200 and 400 meters.

Johnson had to break a world record last night.

Had to, because it was the only way he was going to become a star.

You can't orchestrate history. You can't manufacture stardom.

It just happens.

Happens spontaneously. Happens for a reason. Happens when the pressures are greatest, the challenges deepest, the expectations highest.

Happened last night for Michael Johnson.


Johnson glanced over his left shoulder at the clock as he crossed the finish line, let out an exultant scream and spread his arms wide in joy.

The Olympics were his at last.

His, on a night France's Marie-Jose Perec won the women's 200 to complete her own 200-400 double.

His, on a night the United States' Dan O'Brien won the decathlon, redeeming himself for his failure to make the Olympic team four years ago.

His, on an epic night of track and field.

A night we'll remember for Michael Johnson.

"I had said before that the man who wins the 100 is the fastest man alive," bronze medalist Ato Boldon of Trinidad said at the interview podium. "The fastest man alive is sitting to my left."

Not even Carl Lewis would argue.

Johnson could have become another Lewis, could have made history, yet failed to capture our imagination. Remember how everyone was turned off by Lewis in 1984? He won four golds, but it all seemed so programmed.

Last night, Johnson threw away his script, and reached for glory.

He broke his own world record by a whopping .34 of a second -- this after stumbling out of the blocks and experiencing a twinge in his right hamstring in the final 5 meters.

Johnson said he probably cost himself a few hundredths of a second at the start, but how much faster can he go?

He ran a 10.12 split in his first 100, and a 9.20 in his second.

The world record for the 100 is 9.84.

Boldon bowed to Johnson when the race was over, raced over to the stands to share his excitement, then walked over to the infield clock and pointed his thumb at it in amazement.

"Ato says now I don't have to win the 100 to be the fastest man in the world, but [U.S. sprinter] Jon Drummond says I do," Johnson said. "Maybe I'll go run the 100."

He was joking, but everyone is watching him now, which is what he always wanted, always planned. For one night at least, he turned casual sports fans into track and field fans, became an MJ the level of Michael Jordan.

Can he sustain it? Well, Johnson said he plans to compete at the 2000 Olympics. What he accomplished last night was so riveting, so electrifying, his next four years will be impossible to ignore.

The world record for the 200 had stood for 17 years before Johnson ran a 19.66 at the U.S. Olympic trials. In the last two months, he has lowered it by nearly half a second.

That's a quantum leap.

That's a Bob Beamon-type improvement.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is stardom.

"I got a lot more than I expected," Johnson said. "I would have lost all my money if I had bet on 19.3. I can't even describe how it feels to break the world record by that much.

"I always thought a 19.4 or 19.5 was possible -- 19.3, that's unbelievable. Any other place in the world, I probably would have run 19.5 or 19.6. Running in front of this crowd was just unbelievable."

Yet, so much was uncertain in the moments leading to the race. Boldon and Frankie Fredericks figured to be worthy challengers. And the issue of whether Lewis would run the 400-meter relay was the talk of Atlanta.

Three nights earlier, Lewis overshadowed Johnson's 400 victory by winning the long jump. And last night, events threatened to overtake Johnson again -- first Perec, later O'Brien.

Would Johnson be swept along by history, or would he make it?

In less than 20 seconds, the world had an answer.

"There's never been this much pressure on me in my entire life," Johnson said. "Every day, I opened the newspaper or a magazine and read something about the double. Every time I walked down the street, I heard something about the double. People called, trying to take the pressure off -- and it only added to the pressure."

Perhaps that's why his smile looked so genuine on the victory stand. O'Brien stopped his victory lap at the other end of the stadium and stood with a American flag draped over his shoulders as the national anthem played.

Bookend champions.

Classy champions.

Worthy champions.

In the interview room earlier, Johnson was asked if he could remember a feeling that compared to running so fast.

"My dad bought me a go-kart when I was a kid," he said. "There was a big hill at the end of my street. That's the only thing that can compare."

Last night, Michael Johnson hopped back into the go-kart, and hopped out, the star of stars.

Pub Date: 8/02/96

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