"The only one who can beat me is me."
In 1996 Michael Johnson hoped to accomplish a feat no one has ever achieved. He wanted to become the first sprinter to ever win gold medals in the 200- and 400-meter dashes at the same Olympics. Johnson, the number-one-ranked sprinter in both events, made history in 1995 by accomplishing this feat at the World Track and Field Championships. In a remarkable performance, he not only won both events at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, but he shattered the world record in the 200-meters in the process. Johnson's accomplishment established him as one of the greatest track-and-field athletes in the history of the sport.
Michael Johnson was born September 13, 1967, in Dallas, Texas. He is the youngest of five children. His parents stressed that education and good grades are important. Each of Johnson's four siblings finished college. Johnson attended classes for gifted children. He wore black horn-rimmed glasses that made him look like the class brain, and other children called him a nerd. Rather than dreaming of becoming a star athlete, Johnson wanted to be an architect.
Johnson did not start running track until he was a teenager. "I first competed in track at Atwell Junior High in Dallas, and then just because it was something fun to do," Johnson remembered in Boys' Life. "I ran the 200 and the sprint relay, but I wasn't outstanding and had no big plans for high school track."
Runs for fun
Johnson did not run track his first two years at Skyline High School so that he could concentrate on his studies. He tried out for the track team as a junior and received some good advice from his coach, Joel Ezar—relax and enjoy running. "Track is a big sport in Texas, but he [Ezar] didn't put pressure on me," Johnson explained in Boys' Life. "I ran the 200 and both relays [400 and 1,600]. I never went to a meet intent [determined] on running some great times and trying to impress college coaches and get a scholarship. As a result, I never felt burned out."
Johnson won the district title in the 200 meters as a senior but lost at the state meet. "I believe Michael has done so well because he wasn't always No. 1 in high school," his future college coach at Baylor University, Clyde Hart, related in Boys' Life. "He knew what it was like to lose, then go back to work and stay at it. He decided that if he used everything he had in himself, that some day he would be No. 1."
Johnson attended Baylor University, but track still was not his priority. "I loved track, but at the time, it was a way to get to a better college," Johnson confessed in Boys' Life. "I wasn't as concerned with track as with education." Johnson shocked Hart when he broke the school record in the 200 meters in his first race. "We knew he'd be solid, but we had no idea he'd be that good," Hart admitted in Newsweek. "He turned out to be an incredible combination of strength and relaxation on the track."
Bad luck Bear
Johnson had a tough year in 1988. Already a ranked sprinter, he suffered a major setback. "Michael had lots of setbacks and injuries his first two years in [college]," Hart recalled in Boys' Life. "Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. But when he fell and broke his leg during the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] Championships it was the worst luck yet."
The injury, a stress fracture in his left leg, occurred just six weeks before the 1988 Olympic Trials. Seeing his Olympic dream slipping away, Johnson worked to keep his legs strong. Wrapping the leg securely with tape, he trained in a swimming pool and gradually forced himself to run on the track. Despite his effort, Johnson could not regain his usual speed by the time of the Olympic Trials. He finished dead last in his first-round race, eliminating him from the competition.
Instead of being disappointed by his bad luck, Johnson used the experience in a positive way. "The race told me I could come back and compete with the best if I worked hard enough," Johnson stated in Boys' Life. Hart told the same magazine the race was "probably the best 55 seconds Michael ever invested. Michael came back with a new resolve [determination]."
In 1990 Johnson became the first athlete ever to be ranked number one in the 200- and 400-meter sprints in the same year. To show this was not a fluke, he repeated the feat in 1991. Running against the toughest competition in the world, Johnson did not loss a race in the summers of 1990 and 1991. His biggest triumph came at the 1991 World Track and Field Championships, where he won the 200 meters.
More bad luck
Because of his success, Johnson decided to try out for the U.S. Olympic track team in both events in 1992. "It will be tough, trying to win both the 200 and the 400 because you have to run so many heats to reach the finals in both," Johnson explained in Boys' Life. "But I really believe I have a shot."
Bad luck continued to follow Johnson at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Before the Olympics began, Johnson ate something that made him very sick. He couldn't train for two weeks and had not worked his way back into shape by the time he needed to race. In the semifinals of the 200 meters, Johnson finished a disappointing sixth. He did not qualify for the finals. "I'm just disappointed I didn't get to do my best," Johnson said after the race. He did win an Olympic gold medal, running the anchor (final) leg of the victorious U.S. 1,600-meter relay team.
Still the best
In both 1993 and 1994, Johnson earned U.S. track's Athlete of the Year honor. In 1993 he won the 400 meters at the World Track and Field Championships. Johnson maintained his number one rating in both the 200- and 400-meter sprints through 1994 and 1995. In March 1995 Johnson lowered his own indoor 400-meter world record by running 44.63 at the USA/Mobile Indoor Championships.
In June 1995 Johnson became the first runner in almost 100 years to win both the 200 and 400 at the U.S. Track and Field Championships. His time in the 400 (43.66 seconds) was the fastest ever run in the United States, and he beat the second-place finisher, world record holder Butch Reynolds, by ten meters. Johnson might have set the world record, but he celebrated just before crossing the finish line, doing a high-stepping dance he called "my Deion Sanders thing."
Johnson attempted to become the first sprinter ever to win both the 200- and 400-meter sprints at the World Track and Field Championships held in August 1995 in Goteborg, Sweden. "In order to be considered the best in the world by everyone, I'll have to run both at the world championships," Johnson said in the New York Times. "Hopefully, people will really understand what I'm doing and better appreciate it."
In the 400 meters Johnson ran the best race of his life, winning by seven meters. When he looked at the clock after crossing the finish line, he discovered he had missed the world record by the smallest of margins—one-tenth of a second. Johnson's 43.39 was the second-fastest time ever. "At first it was upsetting, but I'm happy," Johnson said after the race. "I'm extremely pleased with 43.39."
Johnson's work was not done, however. "I came in here with the objective of winning the gold medal at 400 and at 200 meters," Johnson told the New York Times. "As far as I'm concerned, this is the halfway point." Johnson had only 15 hours of rest between the 400-meter final and the first heat of the 200 meters.
Fatigue could not stop Johnson from making history. He blew away the competition and tied his personal best time of 19.79 in the 200-meter dash. Johnson thus became the first sprinter to ever win both events in a single world championships. He added a third gold medal as part of the U.S. 1,600-meter relay team. "Anytime you go into the World Championships, you have to prepare for the best and that's where my motivation came from," Johnson explained. "I really didn't surpass any expectations. I never go into a competition not thinking I can't do something better."
Johnson's performance at the World Championships earned him the Sullivan Award, given to the best amateur (unpaid) athlete in the U.S. "Anytime you win an award, it say something of your accomplishments and it shows appreciation for what you've done," he said after receiving the award. "But being the Sullivan Award winner has more importance. Once you win, you can't win it again."
Johnson received good news when the International Olympic Committee rearranged the track and field schedule for the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, Georgia, so that he could more easily attempt to win gold medals in both events. The gifted sprinter then easily qualified in both events at the 1996 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. Johnson broke the world record in the 200-meters, posting a time of 19.66, bettering the previous record of 19.72 set by Pietro Mennea of Italy in 1979.
Entering the Olympics, Johnson—wearing gold shoes for the competition—was the overwhelming favorite in both of his specialties, despite the fact that he had lost a 200-meter race to Frankie Fredericks of Namibia leading up to the Games.
World record holder Butch Reynolds of the U.S. pulled a hamstring in the semifinals of the 400-meters, leaving Johnson with little competition in the finals. He won easily in an Olympic record time of 43.39, only .02 seconds off Reynold's record. "I'll get that record eventually," he said after winning his 55th straight 400-meter race.
Johnson stumbled slightly coming out of the blocks in the 200 meters, but in an instant he accelerated to blinding speed. "When you come off the turn into the straightaway, you can tell how fast you're going," he explained. "I knew I was running faster than I had ever run in my life."
The world record holder easily won the race by five meters ahead of silver medalist Fredericks, but when his winning time came up his time was an amazing 19.32. In one of the most remarkable performances in track and field history, Johnson broke his own world record by more than .3 seconds. "I can't even describe how it feels to break the world record by that much," he confessed. Johnson ran the final 100-meters of the race faster than any man ever had, in 9.2 seconds.
The double victory made Johnson the first man to ever win both the 200- and 400-meter races in the same Olympics. He pulled his right hamstring muscle during his record-breaking 200-meter race. The injury kept him from earning a third gold medal in the 1,600-meter relay, a race the U.S. won easily. Marie-Jose Perec of France also won both the 200- and 400-meter races in Atlanta.
Showdown for fastest man
In June 1997 Johnson faced Olympic 100-meter gold medalist Donovan Bailey of Canada in a 150-meter race to determine which one was the fastest man in the world. The race took place in Toronto, Canada, but at 100-meters Johnson pulled up and began to limp. He had pulled a muscle in his left leg. "I felt the cramp grab, then it let go," he explained. "I kept going, but I felt it again and it was much worse."
Bailey accused Johnson of faking his injury since he trailed by a wide margin when he pulled up. Johnson refused to react to Bailey's comments. "It's up to everyone to make their own opinions on the title of world's fastest man," he confessed. "I lost the race. If you want to call him [Bailey] that, I have no problems with that." Bailey earned $1 million for the win, while Johnson took home $500,000.
World champion again
The injury Johnson suffered in his showdown with Bailey prevented him from competing at the 1997 U.S. Track and Field Championships. Then he lost his first 400-meter race in eight years when he finished fifth in an event in Paris, France. Despite his injury, Johnson still planned to run the 400-meters at the 1997 World Track and Field Championships in Athens, Greece.
Johnson once again proved to be the best in the 400-meters when he won his third world championship in the event in his first race since losing in Paris. His time of 44.12 was slow by his standards, but he was happy to win. "It's very satisfying to show I can bounce back from adversity and that I'm not just good when things are going well," he confessed. "It's certainly been a tough time for me since June 1. My coach has helped me to see that in difficult times champions go out there and win. People were saying Michael can only run from the front. I showed today that I can win from the back. I can win from any place on the track, if I'm in shape."
The 200- and 400-meter sprints are similar in some ways, but different in others. The 200-meter race is an all-out sprint that usually lasts about 20 seconds. The 400 meters, because it is twice as long, requires both speed and endurance. Many runners, such as the legendary Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis, have run both the 100- and 200-meter dashes, but no one has achieved what Johnson has in his career. "I've been blessed with an ability to sprint, and also with some endurance," Johnson explained in Runner's World. "I've studied both events. I didn't follow the traditional lines of a sprinter, who typically runs the 100 and 200 or just the 400."
Training for both races is difficult, and some experts think Johnson should concentrate on only one. To win both races he needs to compete in seven races, running flat out against the fastest men in the world, all in the space of a few days. "The body can only take so much," U.S. Olympic track and field coach Erv Hunt told Newsweek. "But this guy is almost superhuman." Johnson feels the reward is worth the pain. "Sure there's a risk involved, but that's what makes it fun for me and exciting for the fans," Johnson stated in Newsweek.
Why so good?
Johnson has an unusual style, running upright instead of crouched over. His high school coach said he ran "like a statue." None of his coaches have tried to change his style, because of his success. Johnson is very intense when he runs and rarely shows emotion. He looks mean on the track, but he says he is only concentrating. "They say I look mean," Johnson explained in Runner's World. "My focus is on winning. At that point, I can't `like' my opponents." Most important, Johnson works hard, training up to four hours a day running and lifting weights. "He outworks everybody to get strong," Hart told Newsweek.
Off the track
Johnson is a spokesperson for Nike. He earned his business administration degree at Baylor. For now, Johnson focuses on his goal. "I can't let anything or anyone distract me," he explained in Newsweek. "The only one who can beat me is me."
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution, August 6, 1997.
- Boys' Life, May 1992.
- Jet, January 31, 1994; August 28, 1995.
- Los Angeles Times, June 20, 1996; June 23, 1996; June 24, 1996; August 2, 1996.
- Newsweek, July 31, 1995; June 2, 1997.
- New York Times, June 18, 1995; June 19, 1995; August 6, 1995; August 9, 1995; August 10, 1995.
- Runner's World, July 1995.
- Sports Illustrated, June 26, 1995; August 21, 1995; August 2, 1996.
- Sports Illustrated for Kids, September 1995.
- Time, June 28, 1996; August 12, 1996.
- USA Today. August 2, 1996; June 3, 1997; June 26, 1997.
- Additional information provided by USA Track and Field.
- WHERE TO WRITE: c/o U.S.A. Track and Field, One Hoosier Dome, Ste. 140, Indianapolis, IN 46225.