Michael Johnson: Interview

Cold Edinburgh night which saw birth of a superstar
MICHAEL JOHNSON was born in Texas, and scaled the heights of his sport in cities such as Sydney and Seville. To this day, though, he insists it was one evening in the chillier climes of Edinburgh which marked the birth of his career as a professional athlete, and which made everything that followed possible.

Yesterday was the American runner’s first time in the capital since that night 16 years ago, an occasion he still recalls with pride and pleasure. He turned up for the 200 metres race at Meadowbank that July as a makeweight, and left it a star.

“In 1990 I decided my aim for the year was to become No1 in the world,” he said at a lunch for members of the Bank of Scotland’s Talented Athletes Programme. “Most people thought I was crazy - no-one had been No1 in the 200 and the 400 before.”

The only time he might have agreed with the ‘crazy’ verdict that summer was when he realised that conditions were, as usual at Meadowbank even in summer, on the bleak side. “It wasn’t windy, but it was cold,” he said.

"1990 was my first international breakthrough, and Edinburgh was only my third competition in Europe. It really marked the start of my career and I’m very proud of it.

"In that race there was the most significant group of athletes I’d run against, and I was nobody. Winning that race put me on the map, and I ended the season ranked No1 in the world.

“It was the start of an 11-year spell in which I was ranked No1 in at least one of the two events. That consistency throughout my career is what I’m most proud of - that and representing my country at three Olympic Games.”

It was the time, more perhaps than the victory per se, which shot Johnson to recognition. Despite the weather, he clocked 19.85sec - just 0.13 outside Pietro Mennea’s world record which had stood since 1979.

After that, it was clearly just a matter of time before the American took the record away from the Italian. He eventually did it on home soil in 1994, clocking 19.66, then lowered it to 19.32 at the Atlanta Olympics two years later.

Three years on from that, at the World Championships of 1999 in Seville, came final proof that there was nothing crazy at all about Johnson’s decision to run both distances when he set a world record of 43.18 for the 400m. Both records still stand.

“Both will be broken. When, you just don’t know,” he said. "In the 400m, I work with the American athlete Jeremy Warriner a lot, and I really think he has potential. He’s a lot further along than I was at that stage.

"The 200 is a little bit more difficult, but we are now starting to see athletes beginning to think 19.3 is possible.

“Before I broke it the record had stood since 1979. The event should have moved along by now, and I think we’ll start to see more athletes running 19.6.”

It is less probable, though, that we will see the same athlete improve both marks. Competing in both is an unusual combination, and the timetabling of major achievements means it is more unusual still for someone to excel at both. But Johnson stuck at it, and for a simple reason.

“I enjoyed both,” he said. "From 1991, '92, '93, with a world championship or an Olympics every year, I had to make the decision which one to enter, the way the schedule was drawn up. It was a very difficult decision, because it meant I had to sit there and watch someone else win the other one I wasn’t in.

"Up to '94 my focus was mostly on the 200, then in '96 once I’d set the world record in the 200 my focus switched more to the 400. I was happiest in '95-'96 when I was running both in major championships.

“I know most athletes run the 100 and 200, or concentrate on the 400 then maybe move up to the 800 as they get older. But I discovered my talent lay in the 200 and the 400 - though I never ran a 400 until I was 19. I was motivated by the fact that doing both was something that hadn’t been done before.”

Not only was he a late developer at the one-lap event, he thought for long enough he would have a career in marketing or accountancy rather than making it as a professional sportsman. By the time he opted to concentrate on athletics, he knew he had the ability. But injuries prevented him from realising that ability, and were becoming more frustrating with every passing year . . .

"When I started sport properly around the age of ten I didn’t particularly concentrate on athletics. I tried American football, basketball, pretty much everything. After I’d played American football for a little while I found I didn’t like contact and I was not a team player. I became a better team-mate a little later in the US relay team.

"It was at high school, when I was 14 or 15, that I started to focus only on athletes. It’s at that age that athletes have to start committing themselves to their sport and decide it’s not just about having fun. Having fun is very important, but by that age it has to be balanced with trying to realise your potential.

"I had my choice of colleges and I chose Baylor University [in Waco, Texas]. I studied marketing, and had a four-year collegiate career. Most athletes make the transition to a professional career during their college years, but I had a lot of injuries at that time. I finally sat down with my coach and we sorted out a way of dealing with those injuries.

"There was a time when I considered leaving the whole thing, and that was really because of the injuries. I knew I had the potential, and I’d run the times, but injuries always got in my way round about the time of major finals. I’d never won a senior collegiate title, and every year I’d been projected to win.

"My training wasn’t as intense as it should have been, but I was at school for academics first. My parents were adamant I had to do well academically.

"I was fortunate in a way that I was the youngest of five kids. You could see how I got fast - the last to the dinner table would go hungry. It’s obviously difficult at times being a teenage athlete and getting a lot of peer pressure.

“I experienced some of that. But I had really good parents, I knew right from wrong, and I learned how to make big decisions.”

One big decision was to stick to his own curiously upright running style. “My style came naturally,” he said. "When I was a kid everybody made fun of me because I ran differently, then once I started being recruited by colleges a lot of coaches said my style was not conducive to fast times.

“But when my coach and I studied my technique, we realised it was a lot more efficient than leaning forwards. It wasn’t something my coach and I could take credit for initially. We just looked at the normal way I ran, and took credit for saying ‘Let’s not change just because everyone else runs differently’.”

And, although by his own admission his training was not ideal, he did have the advantage of an active outdoor life - one which at least gave him a platform of fitness from which he could climb and try to emulate those athletes who he saw as role models.

“Growing up I didn’t watch a lot of TV. I was always outside playing with other kids, so I didn’t really have sporting heroes then. It wasn’t until later on that I started to learn about the history of the sport, people like Tommy Smith and John Carlos . . . Jesse Owens was a hero of mine. My coach said I reminded him a lot of Jesse Owens, and we did have a very similar style.”

Having retired after the Sydney Olympics of 2000, Johnson now does media and motivational work as well as some coaching. Before lunch in Edinburgh he was in Glasgow to back the city’s bid to host the Commonwealth Games in 2014. This evening he is back in Glasgow as the guest of honour at Scottish Athletics’ annual awards dinner.

He will encourage young athletes to excel, even those such as Warriner who may one day wipe his name from the record books. What he will not do, however, is soft-soap them. Without ever getting into any rants about how hard he had it as a kid, he believes that today’s rising generation of track-and-field stars have it too easy.

He spends more time near his home in San Francisco than he once did, and has cut down on his broadcasting commitments with the BBC. This is unfortunate not only for viewers who prefer his blunt honesty to other commentators’ celebration of mediocrity, but also for up-and-coming athletes who could benefit from a verbal kick up the rear.

“There has to be a wake-up call for British athletics, and there’s not a lot of time to waste,” he said. "The most important thing is for Great Britain to get back to where it was - you have to keep that standard high. History proves that British athletics can be a power along the best in the world, and you cannot accept anything less.

"For nine days at the Athens Olympics on the BBC we went on and on about how outrageous it was that only one British man had reached a final. Then on the last day the GB sprint relay team won gold, and I said I hoped that success didn’t overshadow the other performances.

“Since then there has been a lot of talk about mediocrity, but nothing has been done. Part of the problem is the environment - Britain is a small country. I wouldn’t know who the best 16-year-old 400m runner in the US was, but here promising young athletes of 15 or 16 suddenly get a lot of attention.”

That attention, he is convinced, is one of the factors which allow British athletes to become complacent. "Look at Mark Lewis Francis. He’s got funding, he gets attention, he drives around in a Jaguar. He hasn’t done anything.

"You have to get British athletes out of that environment and into another where the competition is fierce. They don’t go outside the UK, so when they reach a quarter-final in a major championship they’re up against people they haven’t competed against before.

“You hear a lot of British athletes complaining about travelling from London to Zurich, say. We have to travel from the US to Europe. It’s a privilege to be able to travel.”