Old golden feet reveals a golden tongue

Johnson displays little taste for scripted platitudes and excuses as he transfers his mastery from track to television studio
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The Independent Online

Anyone who saw Michael Johnson flying in golden shoes to a world record at the Atlanta Olympics knew instantly that his sport would rarely again offer such a riveting spectacle. It was also reasonable to imagine that this astonishing athlete would never exceed such a dramatic impact on a single situation.

We know better now. Had Johnson popped into Sue Barker's World Championships television studio in Edmonton with any more force in the early hours of yesterday morning, the poor girl would probably have disappeared in a cloud of Victorian vapour.

For several days she had been dollying up half-volley questions for such pillars of the British athletic establishment as Brendan Foster, Steve Cram, Roger Black and Sally Gunnell, most of which were tapped back so platitudinously you might have been forgiven the conclusion that Britain's athletes were largely in Canada to make up the numbers rather than any serious impact on the competition.

It was no kind of training for a serious discussion with the formidable Mr Johnson, and Sue's biggest mistake was to forget that she was talking not to some professional excuse-maker but one of sport's ultimate winners.

He laughed, not altogether unkindly but with a certain forced tolerance, at her anticipation of Dwain Chambers' failure to get among the medals because of his draw in lane eight, a circumstance which could have been avoided, Sue also seemed to forget, had he put his shoulder to the wheel a little more enthusiastically in the semi. "You're making excuses already," said Johnson. A great silence fell over the BBC panel, as well it might, and Black suddenly wore the haunted look that came to him whenever he was required to line up against the man with gold and diamonds on the soles of his shoes.

There then followed from Johnson a brief but devastating destruction of the great stockpile of euphemisms which had been accumulating so relentlessly since the sound of the first starter's gun. He was most brilliant on the subject of Ato Boldon's strangely subservient relationship with Maurice Greene.

Boldon, said Johnson with compelling authority – and honesty – was an intelligent, talented man who had simply rolled over for his training partner, who also happened to be a multiple world champion, Olympic champion and world record-holder.

Rather than play the court jester in the shadow of the great man, said Johnson, Boldon should have struck out on his own, created his own aura and mysteries and, with them, the potential to ambush rather than reinforce the man who has had virtually a free ride since the ageing of Donovan Bailey. Here was something way beyond the anodyne musings of Foster and Co. It was a searing appraisal of a major player in the game, and doubly compelling because of the competitive background of the man who made it.

Meanwhile, Foster's outrage at the prospect of the Russian Olga Yegorova appearing in the 5,000 metres later this week, after a positive test for the blood-boosting EPO, knew no bounds when he interviewed Jos Hermens, the manager of Romania's Olympic champion Gabriela Szabo, who is debating the scale of her protest at the appearance of Yegorova.

Foster is plainly keen for there to be some mass demonstration against the Russian, as far as you could make out a lynch party minus the rope, which is all very well in theory but hardly squares with some of his stances on the biggest athletic issue of all.

It is not hard to remember, for example, his forelock-tugging reaction to the news that Linford Christie, after unannounced problems with drug testers, had tested positive for nandrolone. Foster had wondered publicly how the integrity of such a great (British) athlete could be so questioned. As Hermens suggested to Foster, nandrolone is a rather different matter. EPO is a major league performance-enhancer, nandrolone can be accidentally taken in drinks and supplements, presumably rather like the ginseng tea which apparently caused Christie's positive test at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Canada, still traumatised by the fall of Ben Johnson, addressed this issue rather impressively at the dawn of the nandrolone controversy. They told their athletes that the use of a supplement could not be advanced in defence of a positive test. The athletes were responsible for what they took into their own bodies.

Back in the studio, Johnson was giving Sue Barker a basic guide to the dynamics of American sport. There were, he told her, so many competing heroes and sports; individual athletes had to turn themselves into dynasties to climb above the pack of multi-millionaires who scrambled for an edge on the gridiron, the basketball court, the hockey rink and the baseball diamond. It was tough, of course, but it did rather create a competitive environment, one in which being drawn in lane eight did not create an automatic excuse for a sub-par performance.

When Johnson left, Sue looked in need of a performance-enhancer of her own. Smelling salts seemed like the best bet.