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September 25, 2000
Michael Johnson does it againThe Rediff Team
When he lined up for the start of the 400m final, Michael Johnson had gold on his feet.
It was rather hard to understand why they even bothered to run -- the last time Michael Johnson was beaten over the 400m final was in 1989.
''It's very frustrating for many of them,'' Johnson once said, sparing a moment to think of his fellow competitors. ''In my years as a professional, some runners' careers have started and ended without them ever beating me. That can be very frustrating. I'm sure some of my competitors hate me for that, but I think everybody respects me.''
In less time than you took to read that comment, the world's most highly-paid shoe salesman had flashed across the track, to record yet another 400m win. Touching home in 43.84, to become the first man in the world to successfully defend a 400m title.
He was pretty even-steven with the field till just under the 300m mark -- and then, with no perceptible effort, he took off. Like an extended sprint, that just blew the field away and had him running, solo, for the last 100m to breast the tape.
And to give his peers another reason to hate him. Alvin Harrison of the US was closest -- in 44.40. Gregory Haughton came in next -- in 44.70.
Then again, perhaps not. For the 33-year-old Johnson (he celebrated his birthday two days before the opening ceremony of the Sydney Games), 6'1/2" with a fighting weight of 180 pounds, had run his last Olympic race. In Athens and after, competitors lining up for the 400 will know they don't have to spend their time bringing up the rear.
But they also know this -- the 400m winner in Athens in 2004 will get applause. But even as they applaud, those gathered there to watch will look at each other and murmur, "Ah, but it is not the same as when Michael Johnson was running."
Many athletes compete. Some win medals. Very, very few set styles, and standards. Dick Fosbury was one such -- he changed the face of high-jumping, and in the process, he revealed an entirely new method of going Altius.
Michael Johnson sets styles, too, with his unique running style. Back straight, knees up, he "runs like a statue" in the words of long-time coach Clyde Hart. His feet seem barely to touch the ground in a series of mincing steps, the toe gingerly touching the ground and taking off again, as if the track were on fire.
The huge difference, though, is that unlike the Fosbury Flop, which is the preferred style of high jumpers the world over, the Johnson run has no imitators, merely admirers.
That style, and the man, first captured the imagination in 1995 when he broke the indoor 400m record twice on the trot, before recording a double in the 200 and the 400 in the world championships. In that tournament, his margin of victory was the greatest at a world or Olympic championship since 1896.
Four years ago in Atlanta, Johnson stunned the world when, in a supreme display of running, he annexed the golds in both the 200m and 400m. And it wasn't any ordinary win either -- after cruising to a 400m in a new Olympic record time, he came back out and shattered his own 200m world record, flying down the track in 19.32 seconds.
Ato Boldon, who got a bronze -- which is a politer way of putting it than to say that he spent the distance getting a nice view of the heels of Johnson's golden shoes -- said it best. "19.32? That's not a time, that sounds more like my dad's birthday!"
But for Johnson, that wasn't good enough. He trained for three long years, before finally achieving what he had set his sights on. In the 400m final of the 1999 World Championships, Johnson blazed a winning time of 43.18 seconds -- a good 0.11 seconds under the 11-year-old world record held by Butch Reynolds. And by way of celebration, he came back to anchor the 4x400 relay team, becoming the first man in history to win 9 world championship golds.
Johnson missed out on a unique chance to defend both his Atlanta golds when, after qualifying for the US team in the 400m, he came back out to try and make the 200m team as well. Running in the adjoining lane was Maurice Greene, the man who would dethrone the king. Ironically, both runners fell by the wayside -- Johnson within seconds of the start, falling on the track clutching his hamstring, while Greene, a while later, pulled up with an injury.
In between, he has spent a good part of 1998 recovering from a problem hamstring. In course of treatment, it was discovered that Johnson suffered an imbalance in his hips, following which a special programme was developed for him.
As year succeeded year and Michael Johnson ran on a different planet from the rest, there were those who wondered what there was in it for him. What fuel could send him gliding around the track, over and over again, running all on his own while his rivals tried to keep from coughing at the dust raised by his passing?
Try "history", for an answer. Michael Johnson wants a piece of it. In 1996, he wanted to be the first ever to take both the 200 and the 400. He did.
Now he wants to be the only one to ever successfully defend the 400.
He has an Olympics gold, but he will continue to run. Until he has planted those golden shoes of his on the one page that remains virgin.
He holds the world record for the 400m -- at 43.18. Now, he wants to go out as the only man in history to go under 43 for the one lap.
That means knocking 18-hundredths of a second off the fastest time he has ever run. "It won't be easy," says Michael Johnson, superstar. "But one day I'll get it done."
And in the meantime, he'll while away the hours picking up the odd Olympic gold here, the world title there.
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