ATHLETICS: Johnson has eye on clock

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THE DOUBLE Olympic champion Michael Johnson issued a warning yesterday to sprinters who have dominated the 200 metres in recent years. "I expect to be back at the top of my game this year," said Johnson who, because of nagging leg problems, has been unable to push his 200m time below 20 seconds since 1996. That was the year he twice smashed the world record, the second time dropping it to a stunning 19.32 seconds.

"Certainly I can get back to the low 19s again," said Johnson from his training camp in Waco, Texas. "I don't doubt that at all. I wasn't able to sprint the way I needed to the last couple of years. But now I'm back in shape and confident."

Confident enough that Johnson predicted a shake-up in the 200m world rankings, in which last year, for the first time since 1989, he failed to gain top-10 status. "I hope to end the season ranked No 1," he said, noting that the world champion, Trinidad's Ato Boldon, and the Namibian Olympic silver medallist Frankie Fredericks would again be pressing him.

The Texan also said that his quest for Butch Reynolds's 1988 400m world record of 43.29 had not ended. "The objective is to go out there and run faster than I ever have," said Johnson, who has led the world 400m rankings for an unparalleled eight consecutive years.

"My PR [personal record] is a 10th of a second away from the world record. If I run faster than my PR, I'm probably under the world record."

Preparing for two season-opening 200m races in South Africa this month, Johnson said he felt "on track" to be in the kind of shape he was in 1995 and 1996 when he claimed unprecedented victories in both the 200m and 400m at the World Championships in Gothenburg and the Atlanta Olympics.

"Training has been excellent," he said. The hamstring and Achilles problems, which slowed him in 1997 and prevented his participation in last year's US Championships, appear under control.

"I haven't had any problems since the beginning of last June," he added.