Athletics / World Athletics Championships: Johnson's bad habits are far too good for the also-rans: Ken Jones reports on the American with the guardsman's gait taking gold in the 400 metres

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The Independent Online
THE view of old fighters who inhabited the Fifth Street Gymnasium in Miami was that a young braggart, Cassius Clay, would never amount to very much because he observed hardly any of the tenets they held sacrosanct. Shrewdly, his famed trainer, Angelo Dundee, said: 'A bad habit is only a bad habit if it doesn't work.'

The bad habit that works for Michael Johnson, one contrary to popular enlightenment, is to run stiff- backed in the manner of a guardsman rapidly legging it from the parade ground. Others have described it as the gait of a man running comfortably up a flight of stairs.

Moving in this unusual fashion he gained the 200 metres gold medal at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. When Johnson flopped at 200m in the Barcelona Olympics last year, going out in the semi-finals, he saw no reason to change his unique style, only his eating habits. Two weeks before the event he dined with his agent at a restaurant in Rome and was violently ill for four days, claiming to have lost 10 pounds in weight. It may say something about the breed that his agent remained healthy. 'He was fine but for a while I had no strength at all,' Johnson said.

On the basis of his form this season, especially impressive grand prix victories in Oslo and Zurich, and the monumental fact that he was unbeaten at 400m since 1989, Johnson went to the blocks a clear favourite in a class field that included the Olympic champion, Quincy Watts, Butch Reynolds and Samson Kitur, of Kenya.

As it turned out this was not remotely an exaggerated estimate. If Johnson was not as short as odds-on when he came under orders it was looking that way after they had covered 200 metres. It looked an effortless performance, almost casual, as though the American, who is freakishly built with a long torso and shortish legs, was moving on castors.

When they came off the final bend into a clearer pattern it could be seen that Johnson had established a handsome lead, carrying far too much for his most dangerous rivals, Reynolds and Kitur. Expressionless, he appeared to coast home, five metres separating him from the second man, Reynolds. His time, rounded down to 43.65sec, is the fastest in the world this year and a championship record.

Reynolds, who is claiming dollars 27m ( pounds 18m) in damages from the International Amateur Athletic Federation after successfully employing US legal procedures to contest a positive drug test, was in awe of the champion. Five years to the day since he set the world record of 43.29, Reynolds said: 'It was a festival of the fastest one-lap runners in the world and I gave it all I had. But I must congratulate Michael. He really is the best. Running the first half in 20.9 is a must if you are going to live with these guys.'

For Johnson everything went according to plan. 'Here, I was running only for the gold. I didn't have to prove that I can run four races. I have already run 30 400m races. So I was ready and did the best I could.' He also said that it is in him to go faster.

There was nothing but a medal for him in Stuttgart. Cynically, in view of the way things are in sport these days, you were entitled to think that a world record attempt was being held back until forthcoming lucrative grands prix in Berlin and Brussels. That, I'm afraid, is now the name of the game.