Johnson's golden feats take the breath away again

Simon Turnbull says the Texan speed merchant can break even more records
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The Independent Online

Oh, them golden slippers. Five months still to go before the Sydney Olympics and Michael Johnson's Midas touch is already glittering. At the Pilditch Stadium in Pretoria on Friday night the man with the golden shoes added a third distance to his world record collection.

Blasting from his starting blocks, easing into the bend and powering up the home straight in that inimitable pitter-patter style, Johnson completed a three-quarter lap of the track in 30.85sec. In doing so, he not so much eclipsed as obliterated the previous best time on record for 300m: the 31.48 Danny Everett and Roberto Hernandez both clocked in Jerez de la Frontera a decade ago.

The rarely-run distance may be track and field's equivalent of English football's League Cup - technically, in the eyes of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, it qualifies for "world best" status rather than official "world record" distinction - but the fact remains that Johnson is now the fastest ever man over 200m, 300m and 400m. He has greater reserves, clearly, than Manchester United. Indeed, with the Olympics so far distant on the horizon, the Texan has shown such an awesome stock of sprinting power the athletics world is wondering just what he might do to the record book, let alone the opposition, when Sydney comes round.

Friday night's stunning performance was Johnson's second in six days in South Africa. The previous Saturday, in his opening race on the year, he ran an equally breathtaking 19.71sec for 200m in Pietersburg. Only two men have run faster: Johnson himself, with the 19.32 world record he set in winning the Olympic final four years ago and the 19.66 he clocked in the US trials that year, and Frankie Fredericks, with the 19.68 that earned him the silver medal in Atlanta. Maurice Greene's best time for the half-lap distance is 19.86.

"I've got to say I'm surprised to be running this quick so early in the year," Johnson reflected on Friday night. "I haven't even started doing my speed training yet this year. I got out of the blocks real good tonight but I held back a little in the second 50m before going pretty much all out in the last 200m. I could probably have broken the record by even more but I'm still proud of it. It might not be an Olympic distance but it's still a world record, the best anyone's ever done.

"I didn't get back into training after the world championships last year until November time and I only really came out here to break the monotony. I've never doubted that I'd be fast in September because that's what I'm aiming for, to run well at the Olympics. I know that's going to happen, but this gives me even more confidence. It's a great feeling to know there is lots of room for improvement between now and the Olympics."

It's perhaps not such a great feeling for Maurice Greene, though. Having struck gold at 200m, as well as 100m, at the world championships in Seville last August, Greene has his sights on another sprint double in Sydney. His 200m sights, however, are being exposed to a rival in blinding form. The Olympic 200m crown is in Johnson's proud possession and, having gained it with the show-stealing performance of the Atlanta Games, he is determined to hold on to it.

There is little doubt that the motivation which fuelled Johnson's 43.18sec world record 400m run in Seville was being eclipsed by Greene as the brightest star in the sprinting firmament. When Greene set his 9.79sec 100m world record in Athens last June, to automatic acclamation as the world's fastest man, few people pointed out that Johnson had averaged 9.66sec for the two halves of his 200m world record run. And those who did were quick to suggest that Johnson - struggling to regain form after injury at the time - was no longer the formidable force he once was.

After one sizzling lap of the Estadio Olimpico in Seville and two scorchingly quick runs in South Africa, Johnson is suddenly the hottest property in the high speed racing game once again. On Friday he was even talking about putting his 400m record "way down where nobody has ever thought about going". "I've always thought I could run 42sec and I still think I can," Johnson added. Approaching his 33rd birthday, and his penultimate season of competition, he is threatening to burn off all challengers in Sydney, where his 200m battle with Greene promises to be the showpiece.

Because of the United States selection system, the Texan and the Kansan will meet in their national trials in Sacramento in July. Before returning to Waco to prepare for the summer, though, Johnson has his first 400m race of the year to tackle, in Cape Town next Friday. "I have to be honest," he said. "My goal is to break 44sec." By how much, however, remains to be seen.

Them golden slippers happen to be made from parachute nylon. And the superman who wears them is really flying.

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