The world's 200 and 400 metres champion had his unbeaten run of 21 races at the shorter distance ended by Namibia's Frankie Fredericks, who appeared to have gained an advantage from a flying start Whatever the case, Fredericks, who had missed the 100m world record by just 0.01sec two days earlier, finished the stronger, dipping on the line to win in 19.82sec, 0.03sec ahead of the American.
On a chilly evening unsuited to sprinting, these two men created their own heat as they ran stride for stride down the finishing straight in what could be a rehearsal for a truly memorable Olympic final later this month.
When Johnson broke Pietro Mennea's 24-year-old 200m record at last month's US trials, lowering it to 19.66sec, it seemed that nothing and no one could beat him. But Fredericks, who broke the world's indoor 200m record earlier this year, has simply got better and better as the season has progressed. On Wednesday his fluid style demoralised every other 100m runner of note. Last night's result must surely have made an impression upon Johnson, even if there was doubt about the validity of Frederick's start. Johnson, certainly, did not appear on the podium.
It was Johnson's first defeat since July, 1994, when Fredericks, once again, headed him. The Texan will have to content himself with an unbeaten run over 400m which stretches back to February, 1989.
"I had a bad start, a terrible start," Johnson said. Asked if he thought Fredericks had got a flier, he replied: "I don't know. I didn't even see the start. Maybe that was my second mistake. I didn't concentrate. Everybody was saying nobody could beat me. You guys said that. But I knew I could be beaten. If you have a bad night then you will be beaten."
Johnson added: "I lost the race because I didn't do what I was supposed to do, not because Frankie ran an incredible time. If I ran 19.85 with a bad start, when I get a good start I could be running pretty fast, so there is no reason my confidence should be down."
Fredericks, understandably, was jubilant afterwards. "I got him! I ran 19.82, which is the best time of my life, which is the best race of my life. And I ran the bend of my life because that's the only way I can beat Michael. He is so strong."
When asked about his start, he replied: "If you mean that it was false, I don't agree. I have a super start. I have trained a lot just on the start this winter."
Fredericks will now go straight to pre-Olympic training in Utah before making a decision on whether to run the 100 or the 200m, or both.
Conditions were not ideal for triple-jumping, either, but Jonathan Edwards maintained his impetus in the approach run to Atlanta by maintaining a winning streak that began last season. Edwards, looking relatively relaxed, recorded 17.68m, the second furthest he has managed without wind assistance this season. He cleared 17 metres in three of his four attempts, and although his last effort went awry, he could still afford to smile and wave to the crowd at the conclusion. Behind him, his fellow Briton Francis Agyepong, earned a creditable second place in 17.18. Aliacer Urrutia, the Cuban who stands third in the world rankings, finished a disappointing fifth in 16.49.
Edwards was not the only British Olympic hope to gain encouragement last night. Kelly Holmes ran a 1,500m personal best of 4min 01.13sec behind Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan, who won in 3:59.91, which beat the previous season's best by more than three seconds. Holmes' reaction upon being told she had run a personal best said much. "Yeah? Woo-hoo! Not bad, is it?"
She had entered what was her first significant 1,500m of the season worrying about the effects of a cold which she had just shaken off. "I was wondering how my breathing would go, never mind my running."
Before she makes up her mind whether to run the 800 or the 1,500m or both in Atlanta, she will have one more go at both distances this week in Stockholm and London. If she chooses the 1,500m, in which she was world silver medallist last year, she will not double up. "I haven't decided yet, but I'm pleased with the way things are going."
That goes for O'Sullivan, too, who will run both the 1,500 and the 5,000m - where she is world champion - at the Olympics. She responded 300 metres out when Holmes attempted to pass her on the outside, and although the 26-year-old Army sergeant gave the race her usual maximum effort, the Irish runner, swinging her long arms and stretching out her long legs, was not seriously challenged.Reuse content