Fox's 20th Century: 1995-2000: Michael Johnson

WHEN THE time came for Michael Johnson to put away the disappointment of the Barcelona Olympics, in which food poisoning ruined his hopes, there was not a more formidable sportsman in the world. In 1996 he arrived in Atlanta with a record of having won 55 successive finals over 400m, but he was much more than a one-lap wonder.

In the previous year's world championships he had taken three gold medals. He was on the verge of joining Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis in an American triumvirate of the greatest athletes in history. In Atlanta he aimed to win the 200 and 400m. No one else in Olympic history had achieved that, but he did more, smashing his own world record in the 200m and cruising the 400 ahead of Britain's Roger Black.

With his long torso and straight back, the 6ft 1in Johnson is the most instantly recognisable athlete in the world. The theory is that he can maintain an equal stride pattern throughout a race. In reality, he said that in the Olympic 200m final he stumbled through his first few strides, but off the turn he swept past Ato Boldon, who thought he was running well "until this blue blur came by. And I just thought, `There goes first'."

Almost as impressive as his record of medals were his sequences of unbeaten finals. Before Atlanta his succession of 400m victories had stretched back to February, 1989, while in the 200m he won 21 consecutive finals over two years ending in July, 1996. From early 1990 until June, 1992 he did not lose over either distance indoors or out.

The son of a truck driver in Dallas, he went to Skyline High School, where the track and field coach said his running style was "like a statue... they say his feet never touch the ground". Although injury problems slowed his early career, he became the world's No 1 over both sprint distances in 1990.

He was world champion for the first time (200m) the following year but 1992 brought his biggest disappointment when, after being the outstanding favourite for the Barcelona Olympic sprints, this most meticulous athlete ironically ate something that made him so ill that he missed all but the 4x400 relay, in which he assisted the States to a world record.

Having again become world champion (at 400m) in 1993, he then began attempting the 100m, in which he achieved 10.09sec, but in 1995 he concentrated on his best distances and reached the pinnacle of his career in Atlanta.

His performance in the 200m final was phenomenal. He ran the first 100m in 10.12 and the second in 9.20, which meant that Frankie Fredericks ran within 0.02sec of Johnson's previous world record yet finished three metres behind.

ROLL OF HONOUR

1900-1905 C B Fry

1905-1910 Jack Johnson

1910-1915 Jim Thorpe

1915-1920 Suzanne Lenglen

1920-1925 Paavo Nurmi

1925-1930 Dixie Dean

1930-1935 Don Bradman

1935-1940 Jesse Owens

1940-1945 Stanley Matthews

1945-1950 Fanny Blankers-Koen

1950-1955 Emil Zatopek

1955-1960 Juan Manuel Fangio

1960-1965 Arnold Palmer

1965-1970 Bobby Moore

1970-1975 Pele

1975-1980 Bjorn Borg

1980-1985 Carl Lewis

1985-1990 Ayrton Senna

1990-1995 Linford Christie

1995-2000 Michael Johnson

My Centurion:

Jesse Owens

Supreme all-round athlete, quadruple Olympic gold medal winner in 1936 and sportsman in the true sense of the word.

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