Michael Johnson

An old article from Sports Illustrated 24 June 1996: Vol. 84 Issue 25. p. 92;



Last week the British Athletic Federation banned world sprint champion Michael Johnson of the U.S. from a 400-meter race in London on July 12. The BAF said it would be “demoralizing” for British runners to face Johnson in the event. To hear the full story, please welcome Lord Stilton Worplory, duke of Puttendown-upon-Marple and president of the Honourable Company of Gentlemanly Though Somewhat Pasty British Sportsmen.

Lord Worplory, thank you for coming.

An honor, to be sure.

We assume you banned Michael Johnson from competing against your runners to get them used to the feeling of winning. Then, when the Olympics come, their confidence will be soaring, right?

Egad, man! No! We’re just fed up to our ascots with losing. We’re positively knackered. So we’ve decided to show the white feather completely.

But there are fine international runners other than Johnson. And the British haven’t had a decent quarter-miler since Eric Liddell, the 1920s runner whose career inspired the film Chariots of Fire. You can’t duck everybody.

Poppycock! We forbid any halfway decent runner to compete.

Who is going to run against your sprinters in this event, then?

Well, in Lane 1 we have Eddie the Eagle. In Lane 2, Andrew Lloyd Webber. In Lane 4, the remains of Winston Churchill, and in Lane 6, in a yellow singlet and a tiara, the Queen Mother.

Lord, you can’t be serious.

You bet your colonies we are! We are expanding the ban too. We call it our Cower of London program, and we’re taking it to Wimbledon, for instance. No British male has won the Championships since Fred Perry in 1936. Therefore and forthwith, I take great pleasure in announcing that we have posted telegrams to this tasteless Andre Agassi fellow and his overly hairy compatriot, what’s the chap’s name?

Pete Sampras?

Exactly! We have informed them that the thought of facing them on Centre Court would make our players feel severely downtrodden, and in fact our boys might actually approach despair if required to play them. Thus their presence is no longer welcomed here. Much more civilized without them, I think. Don’t you?


Indeed, the committee has decided to issue disinvitations to the Misses Graf and Seles as well. All that frightful grunting and whatnot. Some of the members in the Pimm’s tent said it was making it impossible for them to enjoy their Cups.

I don’t believe this.

And none of us in the Royal & Barnacled will ever get over what happened last summer at St. Andrews with that American beast who won our golf championship.

You mean John Daly?

Ghastly fellow! Not to be impertinent, but that boorish, slack-jawed dirigible ate doughnuts all the way around our most historic course; took heaving, undignified lurches at the ball; and wore his hair as though he were a member of a car-lubrication gang. So we have said “bollocks!” to him. He is no longer welcome.

I don’t suppose he’s the only one. Am I right?

Capital, old boy! Since the British Open is on English soil this year, at Royal Lytham, we’ve chosen to be somewhat aggressive with our expulsions. We’ve asked this Shark fellow to stay away too. Much too squeamish with him around. In fact, we’ve asked the immigration department to forbid disembarkation in England by anybody who cannot name the ingredients in figgy pudding.

So who’s left?

Nick Faldo and three chaps from Gloucester’s monthly medal.


I should say! We’ve also passed a no-Cigar rule for Royal Ascot, eliminated from the Royal Henley Regatta the international teams we felt put an excessive emphasis on winning, and changed next year’s cricket Test matches against the West Indies. They will now be known as the Jest matches and feature our lads against your Detroit Tigers. We hear the Tigers are not at all obsessive about winning. Lovely fellows.

But don’t you think the world will see how weenie this all is? I mean, how can you be so chicken? What’s the point of sport if you’re going to compete only against people you can beat?

Balderdash, boy! We are still willing to take on any and all comers in the three-day snooker match at Hickstead!


Think nothing of it.

Well, uh, thanks for coming, Lord Worplory.

Might you do me a favor, dear boy? Received a call from the Princess of Wales recently. I believe you commoners call her Lady Di. She asked if you would be good enough to see that this hooligan Dennis Rodman is kept out of public view.


It seems the princess has grown weary of competing with him. He looks better in pearls than she does.

An old article from Sports Illustrated 30 Dec 1996 - 6 Jan 1997: Vol. 85 Issue 27. p. 82-83 2p.

Section: SPIRIT OF '96

It was as if Michael Johnson knew that high drama and iron self-control are implacable enemies.

Having persuaded the International Olympic Committee to change the schedule at the Atlanta Games so he could attempt an unprecedented men’s 200-400 double, and having then won the 400 meters masterfully in an Olympic-record 43.49 seconds, he had put himself in a place where, in his words, “winning isn’t enough.”

The great Olympic lens focuses a billion good (or ill) wishes into burning pressure, but it wasn’t hot or heavy enough for Johnson. He used his deepest, most congenital hatred, that of being publicly embarrassed, to turn up the furnace. He put on shoes of golden presumption. He spoke of expecting to win the double. “I just wish more people thought I couldn’t do it,” he said. “The higher the stakes, the better I am.” He deliberately left himself a single choice: transcendent performance or mortal shame.

His prime opponent, Namibia’s Frankie Fredericks, shrank from any heightened expectation. Johnson was shocked to hear that. Pressure is a fact, he felt. Let it burn.

So at the gun in the 200 final, Johnson started with power, caught Fredericks after 80 meters and at last felt the heat in his blood, at last ran with utter abandon. He drew away to win by four meters. He looked at the clock. It read 19.32.

In the 60 years since Jesse Owens clocked 20.7 at the Berlin Olympics, the world’s great sprinters–Henry Carr, Tommie Smith, Pietro Mennea, Carl Lewis, Johnson himself–had together improved the 200 world record by barely more than a second, to Johnson’s 19.66, set last June.

That 19.32 meant Johnson had joined long jumper Bob Beamon before him in producing a performance that was a glimpse into a distant future. And Johnson had been so out of control that he had injured himself, having surpassed the speed that already-sore muscles could withstand. (His times over the rest of the summer would be, for him, modest.) But we shall forgive him, knowing that we howled him to it, knowing he had no choice but to respond.

PHOTO (COLOR): Michael Johnson with arms raised in victory



Briefly, the sport had life. This was at 12 minutes before six on Sunday afternoon in the pale, artificial light of the Toronto SkyDome, when Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson were called to their marks for a 150-meter match race to determine (some said) the World’s Fastest Human and (most agreed) the prognosis for track and field in North America. At the starter’s call Bailey formed his mouth into a circle and desperately sucked air into his lungs, while Johnson stood momentarily frozen to Bailey’s right, a palpable chill between them. The building went silent, and anyone with a pulse could feel it in his throat.

This was long after the sport’s most intriguing event in many years had been entrusted to a comically overmatched small-time outfit that came close to being forced to cancel the race, only to be rescued by a swashbuckling Toronto millionaire whose nom de deal is Fast Eddie. This was after Bailey, the 100-meter Olympic champion and world-record holder from Canada, had for several weeks undercut the only reason to run the race at all, protesting repeatedly that it wouldn’t determine the World’s Fastest Human, because he had won that title in Atlanta. This was scarcely 24 hours after Bailey had threatened to pull out of the race in a dispute over the track design and then had issued a pathetic press release, stating that he was running “under duress” caused by the organizers’ ineptitude.

And this was before Bailey popped from his blocks and shockingly jumped Johnson 10 strides into the race, overhauling the previously untouchable Olympic 200- and 400-meter champion from the U.S. before they left the turn at 75 meters, shortly after which Johnson briefly eyeballed Bailey, grabbed his own left thigh and pulled up, violating–unwittingly or otherwise–the last principle of an event whose credibility hung by a thread: Both men must finish the damn race.

This all came at the tail end of a lost weekend for track and field. On the Saturday morning before the Toronto race, the International Amateur Athletic Federation, the governing body for the sport, suspended Mary Slaney–the most famous and successful U.S. women’s middle-distance runner in history–and hurdler Sandra Farmer-Patrick, both of whom had been found to have suspicious testosterone levels at last year’s U.S. Olympic trials. Hours later, a two-mile quasi match race between two of the world’s foremost distance runners, Algeria’s Noureddine Morceli and Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie, in Hengelo, the Netherlands, with $1 million promised to the winner if he broke the eight-minute barrier, was spoiled when Morceli ran listlessly, then dropped out with a lap to run. Gebrselassie went on to break the world record with a time of 8:01.08. “Our sport has lost ground in Europe, too,” promoter Jos Hermens said before the two-mile. “We need new things.” Instead, 22,000 fans got a stopwatch cakewalk that only a track nut could appreciate. On Saturday night Frankie Fredericks of Namibia, a four-time Olympic silver medalist at 100 and 200 meters who was peeved at his exclusion from the Toronto race, failed to show for a 150-meter race in Cardiff, Wales, at which he had promised to lay down a swift 150 that neither Bailey nor Johnson would match. A conference call during which Fredericks, who was at home in Monte Carlo, was to have explained his absence failed to materialize as well, supposedly due to telephone problems.

PHOTO (COLOR): As the runners came out of the turn at 75 meters and headed hime, the lead belonged to Bailey.

In all, a weekend that was to herald a new era for track and field was instead a train wreck. Bailey is surely thrilled; his title is secure, as is his reputation for growing very large in the biggest races, and if all the bills are paid he will be $1.5 million richer. Canadian fans are giddy at the mastery of a drug-free Jamaican immigrant (unlike Ben Johnson) over American sprinters. But the list of those enriched by the events of Saturday and Sunday is short indeed, and does not include track and field.

The idea of Bailey and Johnson running against each other at the hybrid distance was born last August in Atlanta, on the night after Johnson’s epochal 19.32-second performance in the 200 meters. The midwife was none other than NBC’s Bob Costas, who ignorantly split Johnson’s time in half, came up with 9.66, and since Bailey’s world record in the 100 was 9.84, declared Johnson the World’s Fastest Human. (If you think of Johnson’s time in the 200 as the product of two equal 100s–which, of course, you can’t–you must consider that one of them includes a flying start; off a flying start in the Olympic 4x100 relay, Bailey ran an 8.95.) “It was a person who knew nothing about track talking about it with a lot of people listening,” Bailey said. But it struck a nerve. The question–didn’t Johnson deserve the title of World’s Fastest?–was asked at subsequent European meets. Bailey and Johnson got into a shouting match before a meet in Berlin.

Three promoters made offers to stage a 150-meter race; just two of the offers were significant. One came from Nova International, a Newcastle, England-based company operated by former distance runner Brendan Foster, and the other came from Magellan Entertainment Group, a company for which Bailey had made a post-Olympic appearance. The bid went to Magellan, which guaranteed a $500,000 appearance fee to each athlete, with an additional $1 million to the winner. Magellan also proposed an “undercard” of other events. The boxing metaphor was ominous for anyone familiar with the nefarious business of that sport.

Once announced, the race was hailed as a vehicle to save a dying sport. One year after crowds filled the Atlanta Olympic Stadium for morning heats, four indoor and two major outdoor U.S. meets were canceled for lack of interest. “We need something to get us to the year 2000, to the next Olympic Games,” said U.S. sprinter Jon Drummond. “Jesse Owens raced against a horse once. I’d race against a horse for a million dollars, if that’s what it takes to keep it alive.”

Bailey and Johnson ripped each other venomously from late winter until the day before the race. If the sniping was contrived, it was also believable. From Bailey: “Michael’s ego needs a title; mine doesn’t.” From Johnson: “The original idea was to run last summer, while we were both hot. Donovan wouldn’t do that, because he was getting his ass kicked all over Europe by Dennis Mitchell. Fine, he should have said, ‘I’m the World’s Fastest Human next June.’”

While anticipation built, Magellan drowned. It is a small company that specializes in motivational seminars for corporations, but it had never attempted anything as ambitious as this race. Magellan’s executive director Salim Khoja once served jail time for fraud, and president Giselle Briden declared personal bankruptcy in 1992, facts that were reported by the Canadian newsmagazine Venture last December, leaving Khoja and Briden in a hopelessly weak negotiating position with race sponsors and TV networks. (CBS bought the U.S. rights for a bargain-basement $50,000.) By early May, Magellan was behind in paying many of the race’s organizing costs, and creditors were clamoring at the company’s door. Khoja and Briden asked Toronto dealmaker Edwin Cogan, who had been working behind the scenes since December, to bail them out.

“They got in over their heads, and then they surrendered,” said Cogan a day before the race. A 62-year-old with fierce blue eyes that must be hell across a negotiating table, Cogan claims to have brokered $25 billion in deals in his lifetime. For this race, he estimates that he fronted roughly $1 million, ensuring that the race would go on and that Bailey and Johnson would be paid their aggregate $2 million. Cogan associate Dennis Jewitt was put in charge of restructuring the event’s finances. “I might make $100,000 out of this, I might lose $100,000,” Cogan said. “It’s insignificant money.”

The final three days stretched credulity. On Friday evening Bailey entered the SkyDome to examine the track for the first time and was shocked at the tight radius of the turn. He simmered overnight and returned to work out on Saturday, at the same time as Johnson. Bailey and his agent, former Irish miler Ray Flynn, asked Jewitt and Cogan to move the finish line 11.8 meters down the track. They refused. “We’d lose 5,000 seats and two cameras,” Jewitt said. “Impossible.”

Johnson said, “If they move it, I won’t run. Donovan is just looking for any excuse to get out of this race.”

Bailey returned to his hotel, hung out with friends and family from the Toronto suburb of Oakville, and hacked on his laptop until the small hours of Sunday morning. Flynn talked him out of holding a press conference before the race but couldn’t persuade him not to issue a press release. At 10 a.m. on Sunday, Flynn’s 21-year-old nephew, Ryan Clement, who is also the starting quarterback for the University of Miami, was awakened in his Toronto hotel by a call from his aunt Jane. “Donovan doesn’t have anybody to write press releases, so they asked me to do it,” Clement said. (While this is lousy publicity for track, it’s terrific for Miami.) He wrote in longhand, and Bailey tinkered with it before his coach, Dan Pfaff, typed it up. The 17-line statement damned race promoters for their “egregious miscarriage of the competitive spirit of this competition.” Flynn claimed he had been told that the curve would be equivalent to that found in lanes 7 and 8 of an ordinary track, while Johnson and his manager, Brad Hunt, said they were told it would approximate the tighter lanes 3 and 4. Roland Muller, architect for Mondo America, which built and installed the track, said, “I was told to make lanes 3 and 4.” The press release, however cathartic for Bailey, smelled like a prepackaged bailout.

PHOTO (COLOR): It was a solitary stroll home for Johnson, who maintained, “I lost the race with an injury.”

As it turned out, Bailey didn’t need an excuse. He was brilliant, scorching Johnson on the curve, where it had been assumed that Johnson would be far superior. “If I was two steps behind coming off the turn, he was in trouble,” Bailey said. He then stuck the knife deeper, accusing Johnson of feigning injury to salvage pride. “It’s obvious that the gap was going to get bigger and my butt was going to get smaller and smaller as I pulled away from him,” Bailey said. “He knew he was going to get hammered after the first 30 meters, so he knew he had to pull up.”

Runners tank to preserve ego and earning power, though Johnson never has. Still, there was a buzz before this race that with so much for each man to lose, surely somebody would pull up rather than be beaten. “I lost the race with an injury,” Johnson said. Although Bailey softened his stance some on Monday with a statement offering his hope that “the injury he sustained is not season-threatening,” it appeared that when Johnson reached for his thigh, he was already toast. Now he must live with knowing that in the most publicized race of his generation, he never reached the finish line. The reason doesn’t matter.

After crouching on the track, Johnson limped to the bleachers, while Bailey celebrated wildly. The momentary thrill of the start was long dead, and in its place was this image: Two great sprinters, one with an excuse he didn’t need, the other with an excuse nobody wanted to hear, and everyone around them scarred by the experience.

PHOTO (COLOR): Bailey was all alone at the finish because, he says, Johnson pulled up when he knew he was beaten.



Moments before the start of the Michael Johnson-Donovan Bailey sprint showdown in Toronto (page 48), a voice called out from the near-capacity crowd watching a simulcast at the Mirage casino in Las Vegas: “C’mon, Donovan, pull a hamstring!”

In the end, of course, it was Johnson who pulled up lame, giving the title of World’s Fastest Human to Bailey–and a shock to many of the bettors in Vegas. Johnson had opened as a 2-to-1 favorite five weeks ago, and by post time had climbed to 3 to 1. “We had all kinds of bets,” says Robert Walker, manager of the Mirage race and sports book, which took in roughly $500,000 on the sprint. “Everything from $10 to five figures.”

The biggest wager, according to Walker, was $50,000. “We had ‘wise guys’ handicapping the race just as they would a horse race,” he says. “A lot of them liked Johnson. But one guy told me that Bailey was a sure thing because he’s faster at 100 meters and he’d be able to run just as fast for 50 more meters with $1 million on the line.” Sounds as if he’d been talking to someone in the stable.

Section: Sports

Bailey and Johnson go head-to-head in a dash for cash

The Sunday afternoon flight from Toronto to Houston is just about to pull away from the gate when Donovan Bailey hurries aboard. He avoids eye contact with other passengers and keeps his sunglasses on until he slips into a seat in Row A. It is a typical celebrity ploy–by sitting up front and arriving after everyone else is seated, Bailey hopes to prevent the flight from turning into a three-hour autograph session. But it’s a thin ruse: the country holds few hiding places for the Oakville, Ont., sprinter whose dramatic victory in the 100-m final at the 1996 Summer Olympics was watched by millions at home and billions worldwide. A few passengers approach with outstretched pens and magazines to sign (not recognizing that the man sitting one row back is Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Roger Clemens). After that, Bailey–stylishly turned out in a sky-blue four-button sports jacket over a white shirt and jeans–is left alone to indulge a habit he cannot manage at his training home in Austin, Tex.–perusing Toronto newspapers. It is early May and this is the first he has read about the Manitoba flood and the federal election. “You never hear much about Canada down there,” he says, “except maybe bad weather.”

69n1.jpgBailey training in Texas: a genuine enmity

Actually, Bailey is not alone for long. And when a Maclean’s reporter raises that grating Americans-ignoring-Canada subject, the runner’s expression hardens even as he relaxes in the leather comfort of first class, a glass of white wine in hand. It is the subject that got him so steamed at the Atlanta Games, where the big U.S. media outlets ignored the Canadian 4 x 100 relay team prior to the final race. Never mind that the Canucks were ranked No. 1 in the world–the host broadcaster, NBC, quoted an American sprint coach who guaranteed a U.S. victory just before the Canadians ran to gold. The more obvious dent in Canadian pride, however, came after Bailey won the 100 m. The same U.S. media then touted American gold-medallist Michael Johnson as the World’s Fastest Man–a title that traditionally goes to the100-m record holder–arguing that Johnson’s 200-m time (19.32 seconds), divided into two 100s, beat Bailey’s just-minted 100-m mark of 9.84.

Bailey does not dismiss Johnson’s accomplishments, but he isn’t about to hand over his World’s Fastest Man crown either. “I’d be a fool to say Michael Johnson is a nobody,” Bailey says over dinner on the plane. “That would be stupid. He’s a very aggressive competitor, as I am, and he has done a lot. He’s a big star. But I’m not one of those guys who needs all the hoopla. I don’t need to walk around with bodyguards.”

No, Donovan Bailey does not travel with a Johnson-style entourage. But he is a big star nonetheless–and plainly half of a promoter’s dream. What if . . . and so was born the One-to-One Challenge of Champions, which will be staged at Toronto’s SkyDome on June 1. The event features a series of head-to-head competitions between world and Olympic champions: hurdlers Gail Devers and Ludmila Engquist, pole-vaulters Okkert Brits and Sergei Bubka, long jumpers Heike Drechsler and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, high jumpers Charles Austin and Javier Sotomayor and paralympians Tony Volpentest and Neil Fuller. But the headline act is Johnson versus Bailey in a 150-m match race that splits the difference between their specialties but will not-- at least in Bailey’s eyes–determine the World’s Fastest Man. “If running the 150 was to prove who was the fastest man,” he says bluntly. “I wouldn’t do it.”

So why is Bailey doing it? Both runners have said they hope their showdown will help raise track-and-field’s sagging profile in North America. And both have acknowledged the mercenary side: they will each collect $700,000 just for showing up, while the winner will take home another $1.4 million. And both want the bragging rights, which are not just personal but national–there is no denying that theirs has somehow become a Canada-U.S. rivalry, as well. And it will all be settled in a hybrid race that involves hurtling around a 75-m curve and accelerating down a straightaway to the finish line in less than 15 seconds–the winner very much in doubt. “It’s going to be a good race,” says Bailey’s agent, Ray Flynn. “I don’t see a blowout by either one.”

After the Atlanta Games, at least a dozen promoters tried to put the Bailey-Johnson deal together. Quickest off the mark was Magellan Entertainment Group, run by aggressive upstart Giselle Briden (page 71). Since the Ottawa-based firm won the prize, however, it has not only moved its main offices to Toronto but betrayed its inexperience in sports by issuing ill-prepared news releases and holding poorly co-ordinated media days with the sprinters. Sports purists have also criticized Magellan for turning Johnson and Bailey into Barnum & Bailey. But in fact, Magellan’s style borrows most from boxing promoters like Don King. At the first news conference last November, Briden had the runners pose for a face-to-face stare-down, and company news releases refer to the other competitions as the Undercard. “Maybe we ought to have a weigh-in–get on the scales and flex a few times,” Bailey laughs.


Joking aside, there is a sense that the two sprinters are not merely striking feigned pre-race poses. There is a sense that Bailey and Johnson–the Canadian and the American, an unmatched pair of 29-year-olds at the peak of their running and earning powers–really don’t like each other.

In the Maple Leaf corner, wearing the blue warm-up suit and the Day-Glo sneakers, Bailey is beginning his morning workout with coach Dan Pfaff. Memorial Stadium in Austin is the austere home of the University of Texas Longhorns football team, the place where longtime coach Darryl Royal remains a legend and running back Earl Campbell was once a one-man herd. Unlike football, track-and-field is not a recognized religion in Texas. “I don’t think people even know Donovan’s here,” says Pfaff. “We trained here for two weeks prior to the Olympics, and not one single person ever came by.”

Bailey insists he is not troubled that he is better known in Japan and Europe than he is in Austin. Professionally, he fights for recognition for his Canadian teammates and himself, but personally he revels in hanging out with friends at clubs and zipping around town unnoticed in his Porsche. After practices, he retreats to the house he owns in the hills west of downtown–most months, it is warm enough to sit out on the terrace, listening to music and admiring the view. “Austin,” he says, “would be perfect if it were in Canada.”

Both runner and coach say training has gone well, although Bailey was slowed this spring by a strained Achilles tendon. Pfaff says the longer distance and the unaccustomed curve will not be great handicaps. “Donovan runs 150s as part of training for the 100, so he knows how to run the curve,” the coach says. Bailey has taken every fourth week off to visit his girlfriend, Michelle Mullin, and daughter, three-year-old Adriana, in Oakville, or to honor sponsor commitments and commercial shoots–he has deals with Adidas, Coca-Cola and Air Canada, among others. He has two main goals for the rest of 1997. He wants to beat Johnson, and he wants to anchor the Canadian 4 x 100-m relay team to a world-record triumph at the world track and field championships in Athens in August. The current 4 x 100 record is 37.4 seconds but, he says, “I think we are capable of running 37-flat.”

Bailey also hopes the Toronto event will boost a sport that has virtually disappeared from the North American sports landscape in all but Olympic years. “If track is going to compete with all the other entertainment options out there,” he says, “this is something we are going to have to do.” He admits, however, that he had initial reservations about the prize-fight packaging. “I am definitely not a rah-rah kind of guy. I don’t like to get in someone’s face and trash-talk.”

Maybe not, but he is not above a bit of needling. When a reporter asked if a match race was a “head game,” Bailey replied: “If Michael and I are going to get into a battle of wits, I think I have already won.”

In the Stars and Stripes corner, running drills at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Johnson is wearing black Lycra running shorts, white training shoes and a sheen of glistening sweat. He is, in the vernacular, cut, his rippling muscles pronounced even from a distance. Johnson keeps that distance throughout the workout, staying clear of the knot of reporters who have gathered at trackside. He does the same when the group reconvenes for a post-workout scrum. He refuses to enter the press room until a TV camera and all the reporters’ chairs are moved well back of his own seat. “This would be a good time to have a sense of humor,” Briden says.

Johnson achieved international recognition running for Baylor University in Waco, Tex. But his golden moment came on the muggy Atlanta night of Aug. 1, 1996, when, in the 200-m Olympic final, he accelerated off the turn and left Namibia’s Frankie Fredericks well behind–setting a new world record of 19.32 seconds. That added lustre to the gold medal he had already won in the 400 m. So when the U.S. media handed him the fastest-man title, he said thanks very much. “I didn’t ask for it,” he says, “but since they gave it to me, I’m not about to give it up without a fight.” Johnson is quick to add, however, that neither he nor Bailey will be running their usual races and, “regardless of the outcome, you’ll still have someone out there who’s going to say some other guy is the fastest man in the world.”

Johnson will step into the blocks against Bailey as a slight favorite because of the curve in the track and the fact that the distance is shorter than his specialty. In the 200, Johnson usually reaches his maximum speed as he rounds the curve at around 100 m; Bailey, in his 100-m sprints, normally tops out at about 60 m and then tries to maintain the pace through the final 40–raising questions as to whether he can keep it up for 50 more in the new event. But Johnson’s coach, Clyde Hart, says his pupil’s greatest asset is his mental toughness. “He is very focused, very professional,” Hart observed while Johnson ran through his drills at SMU. “As long as I get him ready physically, he’ll be fine.”

On the track and in front of the camera, Johnson rarely cracks a smile. Asked if he ever expected to make so much money from racing–his annual income from appearance fees and endorsements is $7 million–he said matter-of-factly: “I thought I’d make this much money doing something, running or otherwise, because that was my goal.” He insists the race against Bailey is strictly business, but there is an edge to his voice as he describes his opponent. He did not, for instance, like Bailey’s comment that Americans were “ignorant” of the non-U.S. athletes in Atlanta. “Prior to the Olympics, I had a lot of respect for Donovan as a person and as an athlete,” he says pointedly. “Now, I still have respect for him as an athlete.”

Donovan Bailey seems ready. In his final tuneup for Toronto, he sprinted to a 100-m victory in 9.99 seconds at the Harry Jerome Track Classic in Burnaby, B.C. The win was so impressive that even his nearest competitor, American Leroy Burrell, called Bailey the World’s Fastest Man and added that he hopes Bailey beats Johnson for the greater glory of all 100-m runners–a case of sports specialty taking precedence over nationality.

When the big day finally comes, the Toronto race–based on the promoters’ style so far–may well begin when a man in a tuxedo grabs a microphone and bellows: “Let’s get ready to RUM-BLE!” Not that Bailey would notice anyway. Like Johnson, he has a knack for blocking out distractions–as he did in Atlanta, where the 100-m final was disrupted by three false starts. He will need that focus again in Toronto to tune out the home-town fans. “If I ever get into the blocks thinking that all of Canada is watching me and they really, really want me to win, then I am going to forget all the little things I need to do in the race to succeed,” he says. Instead, he intends to turn that burden around. “I think it will be a little scary for Michael,” Bailey says slyly, “to walk in and realize he’s in my backyard.”



There was a delay. The officials had escorted the Olympic men’s 200-meter finalists to their marks a few extra minutes before the scheduled start of the race, so Michael Johnson, warm and grim, sat on the box with the number 3 on it that marked his lane. His mustache was perfectly shaved. If he was nervous, it had not affected his razor hand.

Throughout the stadium, people called his name, screaming, “Michaelllll!” as if he were their last thought as they fell from a burning building. He no longer heard them. In this unwonted moment the whole shape of his mission was suddenly clear to him.

He was back in Barcelona, four years earlier, mortifyingly weak from his famous case of food poisoning. He was watching the final of this race, the 200, which he, the prohibitive favorite, had not even made. He was taking an oath.

The fates may have taunted him–a man to whom control is paramount, a man who plans against every possible hindrance–by slapping him with this freakish weakness, dashing his orderly dreams with something as unpredictable as a toxin in a revered restaurant’s mixed grill. Well, so be it. If ever there was a man born to take revenge against the fates, it was Michael Johnson. He would return.

In 1996 he would employ the fury he was feeling to pursue a great 400-200 double, never accomplished by any man in any Olympics. So for the next four years he trained and raced to build and test the incredible sprint stamina needed to achieve that quest. He became the first man to rank first in the world in both distances in the same year. He became the first to break both 44 seconds in the 400 and 20 seconds in the 200, the first to win that double at the world championships.

For years he had seemed capable of world records in both events, yet he didn’t set one until his 19.66 in this year’s Olympic trials because achieving the double–with its eight races in five days, its premium on raw durability rather than pure speed–was more vital to him. He came to Atlanta and won the Olympic 400 in a near record 43.49, moving halfway to that precious double, and felt he had energy left to spend. He stood on the 400 victory stand, exultant, yes, but primarily relieved. “I had always been afraid,” he said, “of ending my career without having won an individual gold medal.” (He had a relay gold from '92.) Now that fear was stilled.

In Atlanta there were no unhinging interventions of fate. In fact, after the 400, Johnson’s main worry was making sure he held the flag right-side-up on his victory lap. “Everything was going to plan,” he said. “No surprises. I was surprised there were no surprises. The Centennial Park bombing was tragic, but the way the athletes and city responded and were able to acknowledge Alice Hawthorne’s death and feel sympathy for her daughter and come back, it was all so positive, it made performance even more important.”

The first two rounds of the 200 exacted a price. Johnson’s left Achilles tendon was aching. The tendon behind his left knee, already sore coming into the Games, was worse, and he needed repeated adjustment of his sacroiliac joint.

“Since the 200 is more intense attack sprinting, I woke up the day of the semi and final with my whole body sore,” Johnson said. He put it out of mind. “In what I like to call the danger zone, there are certain unimportant things you block out.”

He won his semifinal in 20.27, coasting in, then watched Namibia’s Frankie Fredericks win his semi in 19.98. In Oslo on July 5, Fredericks had beaten Johnson over 200 meters, and in Atlanta on July 27 had run a 9.89 to take the silver in the Olympic 100 behind Canada’s Donovan Bailey, who set a world record of 9.84. The danger was clear.

Now the starter called the runners to stand behind their blocks for the 200 final. Johnson did so, staring straight ahead. The boisterous crowd was quieted by the announcer, and Johnson consciously let all the rivers of pressure flow through him. “There was the pressure from the 80,000 people there who expect you to win,” he would say two days later, his tone still one of relish. “Not to mention having the Olympic schedule changed for you, and all the years of magazine covers, photo shoots, people calling, people calling to try to take off the pressure but just making more pressure, and the fact that Frankie and [Trinidad and Tobago’s] Ato Boldon were running really, really well. I thought, If I don’t win this, a lot of things are going to be said that I will not want to hear.”

He let the pressure fill him to bursting. (Later it would shock him to hear Fredericks admit that he hated pressure. “I crave it,” Johnson would say. “I live for that very moment in the blocks when you may win, but you don’t know, and now you’re going to find out.”) Then his mind cleared away all the chaff and printed one defining sentence: The 200 is the one I want, this is the reason I’m here. That thought had not come to him these whole Games, not until now.

“It was perfect,” Johnson would say. “It dumped a whole other ton of pressure into the mix. It was like one of my competitors coming up and hitting me.”

This was the full-circle moment. This was when he would strike back at the fates, take what he had been owed for four years.

At the command the finalists rose to the set position. A second before the gun, a tremor ran through Johnson’s body, and he flinched but held steady. He would not know he had done this until he watched the tapes. He would say, “I was focused only on the gun.”

It fired. Johnson reacted well, in .16 of a second, but on his fourth step he stumbled slightly. Then he was on his way. Fredericks led early, but Johnson caught him at 80 meters, and there, feeling strong and in control, he lifted into a gear neither he nor anyone else had attained. “I did know, off the turn, I was running faster than I ever have,” he would say. “So I went to my endurance.”

In the stretch his effort was engraved on his face. His gold chain sawed back and forth across the straining cords of his neck as he drew two, three, four meters ahead of Fredericks. The great crowd stood as one, calling him home.

He hit the line, looked left at the clock, and for an instant his expression was, as he later put it, “Where the hell did that come from?” The clock read 19.32. Johnson had broken his world record by .34 of a second. It was a time statisticians had not projected would be run until a couple of decades into the next century. There are thousands of people who have burned into memory the bug-eyed face of a friend to whom they turned that night, staggered, as the seatmate mouthed silently in the bedlam, “Nineteen-point-thirty-two! Can it be, 19.32?”

Johnson was no different. Later he wondered why he hadn’t thought something was wrong with the clock. “I thought I could do 19.5,” he said. “But not this, not 19.3. I’d have lost a lot of money betting that I wouldn’t get 19.3.”

Fredericks, who was clocked in 19.68, the third-fastest time in history, was beaten by four meters, the largest winning margin in an Olympic 200 since Jesse Owens defeated Mack Robinson 20.7 to 21.1 in 1936. Boldon was third in 19.80 and made a comic little bow of obeisance to Johnson. “Nineteen-point-thirty-two,” said Boldon. “That’s not a time. It sounds like my dad’s birth date.”

For a while Johnson could only sort happily through all the things that were his to savor: the win, the completion of his double, the dizzying time. He walked a lap of flag-wrapped joy with an ice pack on the back of his right knee, having felt a low hamstring twinge in the last five meters. The slight strain, which would keep him out of the 4x400 relay on Saturday, mattered not at all in the giant shadow of this towering record.

Later one of Johnson’s friends, Denver Broncos cornerback Ray Crockett, would phone and yell at him that when he came off the turn, he looked as if he was driving a car, for god’s sake, and Johnson would realize for the first time how the sight of him must have affected his competitors. “I am rarely shocked by my own performance,” he would say. “And I’m shocked. I can’t think what 19.3 really means. It is so much more than I expected or predicted, I can’t understand it yet.”

The fates had done it again. They had risen up and clobbered Michael Johnson with the same lesson he had refused to bend to in Barcelona: There are things no one can predict. This time he was hurled clear to the other end of the emotional spectrum, but 19.32 was a time as devastating in its way as food poisoning.

He was only too eager to try to explore, if not explain, just where the time came from. “Part of it was the crowd,” he said. Atlanta’s crowds for track were the largest in memory. “The first round of the 200, 10:45 in the morning on a Wednesday, I walked out there, and the stands were packed, people howling my name,” said Johnson. “I’ve never seen a crowd like this, the size of it, not even in Europe. They deserve the world record. Without them, it would have been 19.5.”

Johnson’s best times have all come at the end of a day that included preliminaries. Is it conceivable that running rounds helps his performance? “In part it does,” he said. “In your warmup you can’t really simulate running a 20.27, so doing it in the semifinal gets my body, my fast-twitch muscle fibers, ready for that kind of speed. But remember, the only time you run that many rounds is in the worlds, the Olympics or the Olympic trials. The big races. The races that put me in the zone, when I’m more focused and aggressive.”

As he ticked off the variables, Johnson became more and more sure that the record was the result of the sudden joining of many forces, all that glorious pressure being turned into speed. It was a record, therefore, that required a man with a great sense of occasion, a man preternaturally eager to go out and shoulder the weight of millions of vicarious hopes. “I know a lot of people say when they succeed, suddenly it’s like throwing off a huge weight,” Johnson said, “but I enjoy it so much… Well, it’s not like it’s exactly fun, not birthday-party fun, but I love it so, I do.”

Maybe the question is, Where did that come from? That willingness to be depended upon? “It flows from wanting control,” says Johnson, a self-analyst of some clarity. “All my life, if I have to depend on others, I’d rather have them depend on me.”

Thus he finds himself in an Olympian’s paradox. Does he insist that the rest of the world live up to the standards to which he holds himself? Johnson smiles, knowing he has made progress. “I think I’ve learned I can’t control anyone but Michael,” he says. “I can’t control people. I’ve learned I can’t expect from others what I expect from myself–which is a lot.”

And, efficiency expert that he is, he sees the payoff: “I work better with people. It’s freed me from doing a lot of things I couldn’t expect others to do right.”

After the 200 record Johnson celebrated quite capably at a party thrown for him and for decathlon victor Dan O’Brien at Atlanta’s Planet Hollywood. Johnson’s black silk singlet and the Florentine gold buckles on his shoes put to rest the idea that he is all solemnity and grind.

“There are a lot of contrasts in me,” he would say later. “People see one side, then they seem shocked by any other. A lot of people thought I wouldn’t get into it [celebrity], but I’m not a shy person. I like to make people laugh. This Olympic fame might seem all of a sudden, but I’ve had it in Europe for six years, so that’s been good training. There are impositions on my privacy, but for me the trade-off is good. It lets me perform the way I want to on the track.” He doesn’t even have to say that if his performance starts to suffer, the balance will be adjusted.

As he set out from Atlanta, Johnson was back to exuding his usual sense of control. He plans on going undefeated the rest of this season. He plans on putting his business training to use as a part owner of the Dallas Mavericks. (“I’m going to be figuring out why we’re paying one guy $9 million,” he said.) There are contracts to renegotiate with his own sponsors.

He plans to run in Sydney in four years. Yet Johnson, 28, has felt no need to form a plan that might enable him to marshal all the conditions that had moved him so in Atlanta, that had contributed to an experience that he termed “almost perfect.”

“I have to say,” he said with a certain wistfulness, “that all that has happened here just seems impossible to top.”

Fates, are you listening? Michael Johnson blazes to a record for the ages