Posted on Thu, Sep. 25, 2003
A. Johnson slips under track and field radar
HIS TIMES SIZZLE, but his timing suffers, which means Allen Johnson ranks among the most unappreciated world champions ever.
He probably is the best sprint hurdler in track and field history, yet circumstances and his quiet demeanor combine to make him almost anonymous outside of his sport.
A pop quiz: How many know that he won another world title last month and finished the Grand Prix season ranked No. 1? How many know he ran the world’s best time in his specialty again this year? Finally, how many know he has made Columbia his adopted home for the past few years?
“He’s just an average guy until they turn the lights on, then he steps up to another level,” his coach, Curtis Frye, said. “At the world championships (in Saint-Denis, France), he sent a message in the second heat: ‘The Old Man is here.’ ”
Johnson, 32, is “old” only in the track and field world, and, yes, he said the other day after his return from Europe, “The young guys are always coming.” Then, in a moment of self-deprecation, he added, “Sometimes, I have been the one doing the chasing.”
The latter happens only occasionally, and his smashing 2003 season emphasizes that he is not finished. Indeed, he already has the Athens Olympics and another gold medal at the top of his 2004 targets.
Only the most daring would bet against him.
Everybody will be watching. Perhaps the only significant achievement missing from Johnson’s credentials is the world record, 12.91 seconds set in 1993 by Colin Jackson of Great Britain. Johnson’s best is a hiccup slower, 12.92, the U.S. standard that he shares with Roger Kingdom.
“He has been under 13 (seconds) more times than all the rest of the hurdlers combined,” Frye said.
Timing is another matter and contributes to his relative lack of recognition.
For example, at the Atlanta Olympics, he won the gold in 12.95 on the same day that Michael Johnson (400 meters) and Carl Lewis (fourth gold in the long jump) commanded the headlines.
Then, at last month’s World Championships, he won his fourth world title outdoors the same day Kelli White’s positive drug test hogged the spotlight. Meanwhile, back in his adopted hometown, the sports world focused that Saturday on the opening games of the college football season.
Track and field suffers from the lack of media attention, a sore spot for Johnson.
But, he said, “Call a track meet the Olympic Games and everybody watches.”
Everybody probably will be watching him in Athens.
‘He is a class act.’ Johnson returned from Europe last week to begin his vacation, a four-week break. But he cannot stay away from the track; he arrived back in Columbia on Tuesday and a day later visited with South Carolina athletes at their workouts.
He followed Frye, USC’s track and field coach, to Columbia and serves as a volunteer coach. “My role is support,” he said, playing down any contributions to the Gamecocks’ program. “I just do what I can.”
Frye hears that appraisal and begs to differ.
“Just his presence means so much,” Frye said. “His demeanor sends a message. He is a class act, and (the college athletes) will listen to him. I have to fuss at them sometimes, then they’ll go to check with Allen and ask him, ‘Did you do that?’ I mean, his credentials are so high, and he is a great example of what you need to do to succeed in life.”