OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Athletics: Johnson meets ordeal honourably: Ken Jones reports on the surprise demise of the Games' hottest track favourite

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OF COURSE it did not happen all at once, there was no sudden catastrophe, but when the moment came you could sense that Michael Johnson felt like he was running through sand.

Coming off the bend Johnson was in trouble. The hottest favourite of the Games, the man thought to be unbeatable over 200 metres, was not going to qualify for the final. Nobody quite believed it when Johnson came third last behind Frankie Fredericks in a semi-final, then dropping to his knees, momentarily holding his head in mournful resignation.

After competing at Crystal Palace last month Johnson confidently spoke of his expectations. 'Everybody can lose,' he said. 'Michael Johnson can lose, but not in Barcelona.'

That was before a debilitating virus swept through his system, causing a weight loss of nearly 10lb, draining his energy and strength. 'I think it was something I ate at a restaurant in Salamanca, Spain,' he said.

When Johnson said that he was sitting alone at a long table in a large room beneath the Estadio Olimpic, a dignified figure who had not flinched from attempting to explain an astonishing collapse of form.

Any number of sportsmen who succumb to emotion in defeat, tearful or simply taking cover, could learn from Johnson's bearing. Occasionally, disappointment clutched at his throat, particularly when he spoke about the feelings of family and friends. By then he was letting the words tumble out quickly so that perhaps nobody would notice how badly he felt. First there was the sickness and how long it lingered, an experience common to thoroughbreds.

It was not an excuse Johnson was offering, just a simple truth. 'I felt very ill for quite a long while,' he said, 'for more than a week after returning to the United States.' People scribbled furiously as Johnson spoke, attempting to keep up with his delivery. 'When did you begin to think you might lose here,' he was asked. 'I guess tonight, coming off the bend, that's when I knew for sure. My legs were dead,' he replied.

It did not seem fair that Johnson should have to endure this ordeal, but never once did he show any irritation or indicate that he had had enough of it. He just went on answering questions, the tap on his emotions turned tight.

Because of Johnson's straight- backed running style, and short stride pattern, it is customary to say that he is a freak. Above all, he is a real man. 'In training last week I began to think that I'd got it back again,' he said. 'Through the first two rounds, it felt like I was improving, and for 80 metres or so tonight I was going quite well. Then nothing. I'm still the world champion but this was the one I wanted.'

Johnson was asked if he had seen Mike Marsh set an Olympic record of 19.73sec in the other semi-final. He had not. Not all of it. Just the last few strides of a run that established his compatriot as the second fastest to Pietro Mennea, of Italy, in history and the new favourite. 'A great run,' he said.

If Johnson has spoken only a couple of disconsolate sentences it would have been rather more than Linford Christie, so recently garrulous as the Olympic 100m champion, managed after failing to qualify, trailing in fifth behind Marsh. Saturday's hero had very little to say.

But the best of Johnson was still to come. If required he will turn out in the 4 x 400m relay but would prefer not to run again until he can be sure that the real Michael Johnson will show up. Then Johnson said something that every athlete should consider. 'The sun will be out tomorrow, and the stars will be out tonight. It was only a race.'

(Photograph omitted)