Athletics: Johnson runs towards immortality

OLYMPIC GAMES: It took a world record to wake up America to the talents of a double world champion. Now he is aiming to make Olympic history.
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When Michael Johnson talks about the realisation of fame he means last month at the United States Olympic Trials in Atlanta. Yes, as recently as that, a world record of 19.66sec in the 200 metres exciting suddenly the interest of a nation that had grown apathetic to athletics.

Early on the morning after Johnson had blazed beyond the sport's longest- standing mark the requests started coming. Besieged by television he flew to Hollywood for an appearance on the networked Jay Leno chat show, travelling first class, filmed on his journey across the American continent.

Never mind that when Johnson entered the trials he had not lost at 200m in two years (Frankie Fredericks, of Namibia, ended the winning streak shortly afterwards in Oslo), or at 400 since 1989; it took that run in Atlanta to establish distinction in his homeland. "Things changed overnight," he said. "People in the United States got to know who I am, what I am about. I'd had my share of notoriety [sic] and stardom but this was different."

A reserved man whose unique upright running style confounds sprinting tenets that many athletics coaches still hold sacrosanct, Johnson could handle what came at him. "Like the world record I saw it as a bonus," he said. In the context of an approaching Olympics it was more. An opportunity not only to further personal goals but to raise the profile of his sport. "I guess one of the things I'd like to be remembered for is that I brought attention to professional track and field in my country," he added.

Such is Johnson's stature that the International Amateur Athletic Federation was persuaded to change a traditional Olympics schedule to accommodate Johnson's quest for gold medals in the 200 and 400m dashes. Beginning in the first round of the 400m on Saturday Johnson will be out there attempting to make history.

Adjustment is critical. On Monday Johnson doubles in a heat of the 200m and the 400m semi-final. Two days later he goes in the semi-final at 200 and the 400 final. "My game plan will be exactly what it was in the World Championships," he said. "Take things as easily as possible, save myself for the finals and concentrate on the differences, getting my start right in the 200 for example."

In Gothenburg last summer Johnson became the first man ever to win both the 200 and 400 at the World Championships, an achievement he intends to repeat in the Olympics. "I'm going to do it," he said, "because no man has ever done it before."

Technically, Johnson is a one-off, running as erect as a guardsman on parade, covering the track with a peculiar stride, reminiscent of a trotting horse, that is several inches shorter than that of most of his rivals. The critical thing is that Johnson gets in more paces. It is not turn of foot that works for him but sustained momentum, the range of his speed and durability remarkable.

However, to fend off the threat Fredericks will carry in the 200m, Johnson, even at this late stage of preparation, may have to correct a tendency to get upright too quickly after leaving the starting blocks. "There are flaws in all athletes," he said, "and you are always seeking improvement, but I'm ready. Right now I'm not looking beyond the Olympics. There is a future but my focus is right there on Atlanta. All my energy is directed at winning those gold medals."

Even for an athlete of Johnson's distinction the future is clouded by the minor role his sport plays in the US. "Because of the Olympics, track and field is getting a lot of exposure on television. But what happens when the Games are over?" he asked. "That's why the attention I got after breaking that record was important."

In Gothenburg last year, the greatest modern athlete, Carl Lewis, blamed declining interest on the absence of an heir to his kingdom. "The World Championships were boring," he said. "The electricity wasn't there, no buzz, no passionate missions. The one American they are trying to build up, Michael Johnson, he doesn't have it. He's not doing anything for them."

Some slight on a performer of Johnson's calibre. "I just went out there and made history," he countered. If the essence of Johnson's being is quality of performance, the fulfilment of goals he first set himself at Baylor University, there is humour behind that normally stern demeanour.

Benn Wett, a German-born American who makes sports documentaries for a television network in his homeland, accompanied Johnson on the recent trip to Hollywood. "Michael was very relaxed on the Leno show," he said, "cracking jokes, showing a side of himself that isn't always apparent."

On Saturday Johnson will return to the task of making history. "It's there to be done," he said. A private man he can afford to raise defences against distractions. "I have a good team, people who take care of my needs, organise my business, endorsements, equity, things like that."

Now he has to win. Competing in the heat and humidity of Atlanta, a gold chain bouncing across his broad chest, eyes focused, a hard man who last lost an outdoor 400m in the 1988 US Trials when he was running with a broken fibula, Johnson is going for immortality.