Michael Johnson: Superman of the fast lane still ahead of the field

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A theory of mine holds that former sporting icons who go into broadcasting are either terrific at it, or rubbish. There is hardly any middle ground.

A theory of mine holds that former sporting icons who go into broadcasting are either terrific at it, or rubbish. There is hardly any middle ground.

John McEnroe fits into the former category, Seve Ballesteros into the latter. Nobody admired Seve the golfer more than I did, or remains more captivated by his undiminished charisma, but behind the microphone, even allowing for the fact that English is not his first language, that charisma goes missing. He managed to make this year's Open Championship sound banal, which took some doing.

An accompanying theory holds that of those former stars who become fine broadcasters, some embody all the talents that made them great in the sporting arena, while others embody none of them. Geoffrey Boycott the commentator is as entertaining as Boycott the batsman was dour.

Yet Michael Johnson is just the same at the microphone as he was on the track: commanding, sometimes imperious, always ahead of the game. The BBC has had only a so-so Olympics so far (watching Craig Doyle trying to craft a double act with Clare Balding almost makes me pine for Balding's turn with Willie Carson, if not Syd Little's with Eddie Large) yet Johnson's contributions are consistently excellent: incisive and insightful. He is a towering asset.

He is also, of course, a towering Olympian. Until this evening, indeed, still the Olympic 400 metres champion. He won five Olympic (and nine world championship) golds, and in 1996 in Atlanta became the first runner to win both the 200m and 400m, events previously considered incompatible. He was the first man to run 200m in less than 20 seconds and 400m in less than 44 seconds. At the height of his glittering career, the pertinent question was usually: who will come second? His nickname was "Superman".

My own encounter with Superman takes place shortly before the Olympic Games, in the rooftop bar of a London hotel where picture windows intensify the heat of a fierce sun."What do you think of British air conditioning?" I ask him. "Not good," he says.

That is the beginning and end of the small talk. Johnson has a vibe about him that does not encourage idle chat, which is not to say that he is unfriendly. Just rather unnervingly purposeful. He is here to be interviewed, so let the interview begin.

We start with drugs. What is his take on the Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery affair (which, you might recall, was the affair before the Kederis and Thanou affair)? "I wouldn't have any expert opinion. You always hear that an athlete has retired and written a book, which says that X amount of fellow-athletes were using drugs. Using drugs in sport is the equivalent to committing a crime in society; most people don't want other people to know. I don't think that those who use drugs in sport allow other people to know about it. So the athlete writing the book has made an assumption. So-and-so improved by X amount in a short time, therefore he or she was using drugs. It's a dangerous assumption. Because the fans read it and think that he should know. But he doesn't know."

Did anyone ever suggest to Johnson that he might enhance his performances with illicit substances? He shoots me a look as fierce as the sun's rays. "No, it was never suggested to me. And I have retired. I'm not going to put myself on trial. If there's a line of questioning starting here, let's go another way." I assure him that I'm not making accusations. A conciliatory smile.

"I'm not saying you're making accusations. I just want us to be clear with one another." OK, let's try another tack. Here I am, in conversation with one of the greatest Olympic champions of all time. Yet our first topic is drug abuse.

Doesn't he find that mildly depressing? "It's not depressing, it's unavoidable. If you wrote an article and didn't mention it, your readers would wonder what was wrong with you. The fact is that we are in crisis, and something has to be done about it. Nobody really talks to me about what has to be done. They talk about how I feel the sport got to this point, or do I think this or that person is or isn't (taking drugs), or what my experiences were. But the real question is, what's being done? It's really not being dealt with. That is shocking to me."

So if he were appointed global commissar of athletics - and I can think of worse appointments - then what would he do? "I'd take responsibility. I would at least come out and say, 'here's what we're doing, making sure that the majority of athletes who are clean can compete on a level playing-field'." Does he think that drug-testing is inadequate? Most other athletes I have spoken to in the past 12 months, including Paula Radcliffe who is so outspoken in her contempt for drug cheats, reckon that the testing regime is admirably rigorous.

"I have no problem with testing. In the US we are tested by our own federation as well as the IAAF, in and out of competition. I was recently informed that not all countries do that. But it's certainly an adequate system. As an athlete you get a little tired of the testers showing up, but that's good. The problem starts when a test is positive. There is no clear process whereby the athlete then has a hearing, is allowed to appeal, and a final decision is rendered. It's a very murky area with a lot of overlapping jurisdictions. That's the sport's big problem. We've had an investigation going on for several months, involving some very prominent athletes, and nothing's happened yet. It has a very negative impact on the whole sport."

Enough of the negativism. Let's concentrate on the wondrous side of athletics, on the thrill of an Olympic track final, which the vast majority of us will experience only as spectators. What's it like as a participant? Can a runner afford to think "this is an Olympic final", as he or she prepares for the gun?

"Well, there is a Catch 22. You are aware that there is a great deal at stake, that it is the biggest event and you should treat it as such. But at the same time, you have to do what you have always done. You've obviously been successful to some degree to get to this point, and you have to continue to do the same thing."

Phlegmatic as he is, Johnson's excitement before yesterday's men's 100m was palpable. He knows that is the blue riband event. So I ask whether it ever bugged him that the 100m received enormous attention perhaps at the expense of the 200m and 400m? Another smile. "I take pride that I took attention away from that event." Yes, but it is the winner of the Olympic men's 100m who glories in the title of fastest man in the world. He was never the fastest man in the world.

"Oh, but I was. You're right, that the fastest man in the world was always said to be whoever won the 100m. But in '96 I covered the last 100m of the 200m in 9.6 seconds, running at 28mph. That was faster than any 100m runner had ever run. I was happy that some people thought that made me the fastest man in the world. For those who didn't, I was glad to have created some controversy. It doesn't matter at this point. It didn't matter then. I was the fastest at what I did, that was all that mattered. But I can say that I ran faster in miles per hour than anyone ever had."

Back in the '90s, it occurs to me, track and field, especially track, was full of big characters and big rivalries. Men such as himself, Carl Lewis, Frankie Fredericks, Donovan Bailey, Linford Christie. The rivalries and personalities seem smaller now. Does Johnson agree? He does not.

"It's not about personality," he says. "It's about performance. I certainly hesitate to say that I was a big personality. I was relatively quiet, with a reputation for being arrogant and aloof. I don't think I was.

"But it got to the point with the media where it was all about them. The athletes wanted to please the media because that was how they became bigger celebrities. I was aloof to the media so I was called aloof. But what I was aloof to was something I wasn't out there for. That wasn't the job I was supposed to be doing. I was so focused on competition, while others seemed focused on pleasing the media."

It is not unprecedented for a sportsman with abrasive relations with the media to become part of the media pack. McEnroe again comes to mind. And Ian Botham, now the genial face of Sky Sports, could be a hellishly difficult man to interview. But it is perhaps not coincidental that these are often the men who analyse their sports so brilliantly; the most fiendish poachers always did make the best gamekeepers.

"I enjoy helping people to understand this sport better," Johnson says, simply, when I bring this up. But when it comes to explaining what it feels like to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games, even his considerable eloquence is tested to the limit.

"The feeling is almost inexplicable," he concedes. "It's the pinnacle.

"You're competing against the best in the world at their best, because regardless of what they've done the year before, in Olympic year they're training harder. But only one person can be champion, and to be that one is an incredible feeling.

"At the same time, my first gold medal was on the relay team in '92, and I could just as well have thrown that medal in the toilet because I had gotten sick with food poisoning, and the race I was supposed to dominate (the 200m), I wasn't even in the final. That medal is very special to me now, but at the time it was no consolation. Even in '96 when I won my first individual medal, the 400m, it was part of an overall objective. Had I not later won the 200m, I would not have been satisfied."

These days, he has at least as much cause for satisfaction as any former athlete. Aside from his broadcasting commitments, he runs a highly successful sports consultancy. His millions have been sensibly invested, making this 36-year-old truck driver's son from Dallas richer than JR Ewing.

He keeps exceedingly fit by cycling and playing tennis. Does he ever run other than to keep fit, I ask him. Might we ever see that unique style - back arched, knees pumping almost high enough to collide with the gold chain rhythmically bashing his chest - flashing across an airport concourse when he is late for a plane? "Not unless I'm being paid," he says in a deadpan way.

As for his personal life, he is happily married and has a four-year-old son. I should know better than to wrap things up with a frivolous question, of course, but I plough ahead anyway. Can his little boy shift? "He's four," says Johnson, sternly. "I've been asked that question since he was six months old. I hope he doesn't become a runner. And why should he? He has his mother's genes too, and her running's not very good.

"But if he does, can you imagine what the expectation will be like at 15, when it's like this at four?" Duly chastened, I shake his hand and bid farewell. But not before asking The Independent's photographer, David Sandison, to take a quick picture of me with an Olympic legend. It hasn't been an entirely comfortable experience, but being in the presence of greatness rarely is.


Pure gold: Johnson's four greatest Olympians

Jesse Owens

He's top of my list, for sure. Under immense pressure he won four events in the 1936 Olympics, the first person ever to do so. Unfortunately I never got a chance to meet him, but I know his family very well.

Carl Lewis

He always performed so consistently at the Olympics. The three years in between were not so great for him, but he rose to the big occasion.

Mark Spitz

He achieved complete domination of the pool in 1972, when he was competing against the best swimmers in the world. That was extraordinary.

Nadia Comaneci

In 1976 she was awarded the first perfect 10. And like Jessie Owens, it was achieved under immense pressure. There are many other great Olympic champions I don't know know much about. Your Steve Redgrave, for instance.