Athletics; Michael Johnson: Straight-talking Johnson attacks age of hype

World Athletics Championships: Olympic champion believes too many competitors today are not living up to their words
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The Independent Online

Michael Johnson is trying to think of a contemporary athlete he believes in. Somebody who, in his terms, is "real". Somebody gifted, obviously, but somebody with a desire to win in a way that yells of self-improvement. Somebody not unlike himself.

"Who do I believe in?" he asks, nursing the question as we discuss the World Championships, which start today in Paris, where Johnson will be on assignment as a BBC analyst. He pauses. He finds three names but says they are all "too obvious".

One is Paula Radcliffe, who has withdrawn from the Championships. The second is Mexico's Ana Guevara, who he confidently predicts will win the women's 400m. The third is Felix Sanchez, of the Dominican Republic, who he says will retain his 400 metres hurdle title. But none of them quite fit the bill.

The kind of "real" person he is searching for needs to create excitement by amassing a body of consistent attention-grabbing work that lives up to high-profile hype. So who does he believe in?


The basis for his assessment seems to be that a "real" competitor has to be almost too good to be true. "People had to wonder whether I was real," he says of his career as the greatest combination sprinter ever. "People probably thought 'What's he trying to hide? How real is what he just said about wanting to win races and break records?"

Johnson's output, like his shoes, was gilt-edged. He won five Olympic titles and another nine gold medals - a record - at World Championships. He still holds the world records over 200m and 400m, the former set in Atlanta in 1996 at an Olympics where he became the first man to win both those events at the same Games.

After he had powered home in 19.32sec, all pumping arms and trademark ramrod back, Ato Boldon, the 200m bronze medallist, said of Johnson's vastly superior speed: "Nineteen-point-thirty two, that's not a time, it sounds like my dad's birth date."

Four years later, in Sydney, Johnson became the first man to defend an Olympic 400m title successfully, winning from Roger Black - now a colleague at the Beeb - in second.

"Now it seems a lot of people are just talking about breaking records," he says. "It's all about self-promotion. It's not real. People who follow the sport aren't stupid. If someone like Tim Montgomery keeps saying he's going to do this and that and then doesn't then eventually you're going to run out of credibility."

Montgomery, the 100m world record holder, is one of the major players in the blue riband event who has not been "real" of late. He has flopped twice this month already. Maurice Greene, the defending world champion, has raced only five times this year and not at all for six weeks. "I think the British guys have as good a chance as anyone," Johnson says. "But Dwain Chambers has been inconsistent and not really fast this year." The Commonwealth champion, Kim Collins, is among others who have a chance in Paris but no evidential claim.

The situation in the men's 400m is equally open. Johnson names his compatriot Tyree Washington as a man to watch, but there is no conviction that anyone is emerging to replicate his own dominance at the distance. On the positive side, Johnson says a lack of certainties provides a chance to relish the unknown. "There are a lot of races void of clear favourites. It's unpredictable, which as a spectator I like."

So does that mean when he was competing, the 400m was boring? He laughs. "Not from a competitor's point of view. It wasn't me spectating. And the entertainment in my races came in the performance and the records."

Johnson realised by his early 20s that he was a potential great. "I knew I had the ability but you need a desire to work hard and give every drop. A lot of fine athletes only want to win. When you don't just want to win but be the best you can be, that's where you go to the next level."

Winning all the time was therefore never a demotivating experience. "The more I won, the more confident I became. And the more I had to lose if I didn't win. But that helped because I compete better under pressure. I looked at opportunities to put myself under pressure like in 1996 [at the Olympics]. That was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I thought If I don't succeed [by winning two golds] then it'll never happen again."

So what went through his head in major races? "There can be only one thing going through your head. You can only be thinking what to do when the gun goes. It's not instinct. A lot of people do something for leisure and health they think is similar to what we [runners] do. It might look similar but it's completely different. What we do isn't natural for your body. You have to stay focused to avoid any mistakes. This is the highest level of strategy."

Johnson has a reputation as a commentator who illuminates and says what he thinks. "I don't say stuff so that someone will come up to me and say thanks."

Montgomery and Marion Jones certainly did not say thanks when he criticised their choice of Charlie Francis - Ben Johnson's former mentor - as coach. "But several people said to me 'That's what I've been thinking' and in that instance they stopped that association pretty soon. I say it the way I feel it is. I don't target people. If athletes do nice things, I say nice things."

And if they do things he judges incautious, he tells them. Denise Lewis was not too keen to hear he disapproved of her choosing Dr Ekkart Arbeit, who was involved with systematic doping in East Germany, as her conditioning consultant.

Yet Johnson thinks the perception of a drug problem in athletics outweighs the reality. "How many actual positive tests are there? Not many. In the States you get a lot of attention about a 300th-ranked javelin thrower who tested positive but a US athlete breaking a stadium record won't even make the back page."

He is not complacent, as his stance on Montgomery, Jones and Lewis shows. But he feels more time should be spent concentrating on the sport - and less on peripheral detail. "I feel more like myself [in public] than when I was competing," he says. "Then there were always journalists looking for an angle, trying to find a story. I put up a defence."

He rejects the notion that he was purposely prickly or stand-offish - as many claimed - saying his attitude was a product of his desire to be the best. "I wouldn't have had the success and the career if I'd focused on being a celebrity," he says. "I was focused on running fast, breaking records and winning medals."

Shortly after Johnson's two golds at the 1995 World Championships, Carl Lewis said of him: "The electricity is not there. There's no buzz, no passionate mission." Johnson countered with: "He thinks that what the fans can appreciate is him working on an album, coming out with his own line of clothes. Well, they're not looking for flamboyance, they're looking for someone who's genuine."

Johnson still is. Looking, that is. And genuine.

Michael Johnson the life and times

Born: 13 September 1967, Dallas, Texas

Family: Married to Kerry with one son.

Occupation: Analyst on BBC Athletics coverage, former international athlete.

Career: Having competed in American football and athletics throughout school, Johnson chose to focus on the latter. Broke Baylor school record clocking 20.41sec in his first collegiate 200m race and went on to compete in both NCCA outdoor and indoor meets. Graduated with degree in business in 1990. First major title in his 14-year career came when he won the 200m at the World Championships in 1991. Food poisoning forced him out of the 1992 Olympic Games as he finished a disappointing sixth in the semi-finals. Chose to continue focusing on both the 200m and 400m, and was rewarded with gold in the 400m at the 1993 World Championships. Set 200m world record at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, recording a time of 19.32 and became the first man to win both Olympic 200m and 400m. Set world record for the 400m during the 1999 World Championships in Seville, with a time of 43.18. After winning 400m gold at the Sydney Olympics, retired from competition in 2001.

Achievements: Four-times world 400m champion, world records in both 200m and 400m, and Olympic champion in both distances. Became the first athlete to be ranked No 1 in the world in both the 200m and 400m, and received the Jesse Owens award three times.

He says: "I'd like to be remembered as nothing more than what I am, the most consistent and versatile sprinter who ever sprinted."

They say: "He redefined the parameters of the one-lap event." Steve Cram - former world 1500 metres champion and fellow BBC athletics commentator.