Athletics: Johnson sets sights on the 43sec barrier

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MICHAEL JOHNSON, who destroyed the 11-year-old world 400 metres record here in 43.18 seconds, believes he can go even faster before he retires: "I think I can go under 43 seconds," he said. "I have always felt I can run under 43 seconds, 43.18 for me is confirmation of that. It's a step towards that."

After igniting the Estadio Olimpico into a frenzy of acclamation on Thursday night, the 31-year-old from Waco, Texas, said that breaking the previous record of 43.29sec, set by fellow American Butch Reynolds at the Zurich Weltklasse in 1988, had brought him as much pleasure as anything else in his career.

That is saying a lot, given that the man has now collected Olympic and world titles at both 200m and 400m, as well as becoming the first man to hold the world record at both distances since another American, Tommie Smith, back in 1967.

But so methodically has this marketing graduate set about his work since arriving on the international scene in 1990 that such claims have to be taken seriously. With a couple of exceptions, his career might have been designed along the lines of a 10-year business plan.

As a result of his efforts on Thursday, he gained pounds 37,500 for retaining his title, and a pounds 62,500 world record bonus. That money is likely to be more than matched by the bonus that will be awarded to him by his sponsors, Nike, with whom he has a deal running through to 2002 worth pounds 1.25m a year.

Johnson said yesterday that he intends to see out that contract - and that, at the age of 32, he will seek to replicate his achievements at the last Olympics by contesting the 200m and 400m in Sydney, adding a shot at the 4x400m for good measure.

Yet he acknowledges that his monumental achievement on the home ground of Atlanta three years ago, when he became the first man to win the Olympic 200m and 400m double, slicing an astonishing 0.34sec off his own world 200m record in reducing it to 19.32sec, brought him a sense of fulfilment.

"After the '96 Olympics, I always felt that if my career ended at any point, I could be happy," he said yesterday. "I have got more out of the sport than I ever thought I would. I have been lucky. But I also wanted this world record. My collection is complete now."

There have only been two low points along the way for him. A bout of food poisoning before the 1992 Olympics, which caused him to lose 10lb in weight, effectively ruined his chances of fulfiling his position as 200m favourite, and he failed to make the final.

Two years ago he slowed to a halt clutching his hamstring during a much- hyped 150m indoor challenge race in Toronto against Canada's Olympic 100m champion, Donovan Bailey, who took some pleasure in announcing to home reporters afterwards that he considered Johnson to be "a faker and a chicken".

There was talk yesterday of a similar commercial 150m race being arranged between Johnson and the world 100m record holder, Maurice Greene, with Greene's agent, Emmanuel Stewart, suggesting that the public had demonstrated an enthusiasm for such head-to-head races.

The reactions from the Johnson side, via his manager Brad Hunt, were polite but lukewarm. Johnson believed that the Toronto experience was a mistake in every possible way other than financially, and he is loath to re-enter such an arena.

Money may talk again, of course. But his position at the moment is that if Greene wants to come and race him over 200m in Brussels on Friday, and in Rieti the following Sunday - the last two dates on Johnson's schedule - he is free to do so.

For now, however, Johnson is concentrating his energies on preparing for a 4x400m final on the concluding night of these championships tomorrow.

If he collects yet another gold then it means he will have surpassed the record of his compatriot Carl Lewis in collecting nine world titles. Another historic record beckons for the Waco Express.