Athletics: Dual aim of a singular man

while an American sprinter with his eyes on an elusive record plans to prove he is the best of both worlds
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The Independent Online
NOT many athletes have stood out because they made something as easy as running look difficult and still run astonishingly fast. Michael Johnson would stand out even if his style was not that of someone with a broomhandle stuck down the back of his vest. Simply, he is the most outstanding athlete ever to cope with the dual challenge of the 200 and 400 metres, and next week he becomes the biggest favourite for gold at the world championships in Gothenburg where he plans to run in both events.

Take as an example the recent United States trials in which even if you are a world champion, unbeaten for ages and more readily recognised coast to coast than the present vice-president, you still have to go out there and win your place. A lot of great athletes have failed. Johnson not only won the 400 metres but with 10 of those metres still to run could ease down and enjoy his sense of superiority. He murdered the field on the final bend: 100 metres run in 10.3sec, which would be a respectable time for Britain's Linford Christie running in a straight line. Not only that, he also won the 200 metres, thus becoming the first athlete to do the double this century.

Not long ago Roger Black was looking ahead to this season and reflecting on the fact that Britain had never had such a well of talent in 400 metres running. He reeled off the names, several of which, unfortunately, have since succumbed to one-lap runners' susceptibility to injury. Then he added: "But Michael Johnson, he's in a world of his own." Being unbeaten over the one-lap distance for six years gives Johnson a psychological advantage every time he goes to the blocks. He is formidable over half the distance and but for an inability to master the technique of the explosive start would probably be among the world's best over 100 metres.

Giving the impression of being on a different planet is something that the 27-year-old Johnson enjoys. He wants to ensure that everyone knows he is the best without going to the sort of extremes that turn boxing into unseemly farce. He has developed an on-track aloofness, a cold stare before and during races, not directed at anyone in particular but finally always fixed on the finish line. Christie does the same. In fact, off the track Johnson smiles a lot and will always have some ready answer when the kids ask: "Hey, why do you run like that?" He usually says something about having short legs and a long body, and who said there was only one way to run, anyway. Not that his stiff-backed style is any the less curious for having him explain "that's the way I've always run". It looks unnatural, like a clip from film of pre-First World War competitions, or Chariots of Fire.

"People make a lot of my running style," Johnson said, "but it's the way I ran when I first came to track and field and no coach has ever tried to change it." Why should they when for the first half of this decade he has been so dominant? His regular coach, Clyde Hart, explained: "It's a natural style for him. I've not tried to change it. It could be that the others have got it wrong. They could be spending too much energy just going up and down."

One of Britain's top sprint coaches, John Isaacs, was asked how it was that Johnson could run so apparently awkwardly but so fast. He thought for a while and came up with the considered reply: "God knows." All that the promoters of athletics events all round the world need to know is that Johnson and Noureddine Morceli are currently top of the bill and the bidding only begins at $30,000 an appearance.

Attempts to compare Johnson's strange gait usually include another Texan, Jim Hines, the 1968 Olympic champion, but possibly a more accurate comparison would be with Jesse Owens in the Thirties. That link came to mind most poignantly in the world championships of 1991 in Tokyo when Johnson's winning time for the 200m gave him an amazingly comfortable margin of 0.33sec. In the 1936 Olympics Owens created a gap of 0.4sec. In racing or rowing they would say the winner's margin was a "distance" or that he won "easily". A split second perhaps, but it set Johnson apart.

Hart has been privy to some of Johnson's serious training stints when a flying start time for 200m has been unofficially clocked in only a fraction over 18 seconds. It goes without saying that as a 4 x 200m relay runner, Johnson is awesome.

Michael Duane Johnson comes from Waco, Texas, and in spite of David Koresh is proud of it. In that firmly loyal way that all Americans seem to have about their home state, he gives Texas praise for developing his talents as well as those of his four brothers and sisters, all of whom are high flyers, but in more sedentary ways - two teachers, a computer expert and an investigator for the Government. For his own part, Michael, the eldest, was a studious teenager, ignoring sport altogether when he was in his early teens, the years in which most exceptional athletes begin to impress. His academic career at Baylor University led to a degree in marketing, a qualification which he rarely forgets.

When asked to complete one of those magazine questionnaires about himself, he was unable to recall the last film he saw or his favourite television programme but said the most recent book he read was the history of the Nike company. Nike is his main sponsor.

At Baylor he was quick over 200m and in the one-lap relay but not quick enough for anyone to predict that he would later be the best. After a serious stress fracture when competing in the NCAA championships in 1988 it took more than a year to recover because other injuries added to his problems. So one Olympic Games was missed altogether.

The indoor season of 1989-90 brought a broad hint of his potential when he became the American champion and the fastest in the world over 200m. Curiously, when he appeared at Cosford in that season he was beaten by Britain's Marcus Adam, but after that he became virtually unbeatable although world records eluded him. He had 32 successive wins including the 1991 world championship 200m. In 1993 he added the 400m world title to a list he says will be completed only by winning both events at the Olympic Games in Atlanta next summer. Already he has been given a wink of approval to have the Games timetable changed in order to make that target achievable. The final nod will come from the IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, who was recently button-holed by Johnson.

Shortly before the Barcelona Olympics of 1992 he appeared at Crystal Palace and was asked whether he could even contem- plate being beaten in Spain: "Everyone can lose. Michael Johnson can lose, but not in Barcelona," he said. But he did. He entered the 200m as the biggest favourite of the Games but a virus had cost him nearly a stone in weight and a lot of strength. He came off the bend remembering for the first time in nearly five years what it was like to feel desperately tired and vulnerable. He was eliminated in the semi-finals

What he now wants, as much as more gold medals, is the 16-year-old 200m world record of 19.72sec, which could be a problem since it was set at high altitude in Mexico by the Italian Pietro Mennea. But the marketing man's philosophy is: "They pay me for winning races; I'll get that record someday when everything's just right." Gothenburg next week? "After Barcelona, I don't say things like that."