“I had already been into my professional career for six years and had not won an individual gold medal at the Olympics. There was a tremendous amount of pressure going into 1996 to get it done.” ~ Michael Johnson
So there I sat, on the floor of the living room, eyes wide and glued to the box waiting to see if the ‘man with the golden shoes’ could get it done. Athletics was a very innocent sport to the child sitting there, catching up with the events of the previous day in Atlanta on a recorded VHS tape. Little did I know of the ills of doping or the complexities of each event. Getting from A to B in the fastest time possible was all that crossed my naïve, youthful mind. That’s essentially all Michael Johnson had to do in both the 200m and 400m to complete his quest for a historic double but, of course, actions would be far harder to accomplish than words. He had won both a year previous, at the World Championships in Gothenburg, but no man had ever won over both distances at the same Olympic Games. This was unchartered territory; an attempt at Track & Field immortality. Despite the magnitude of the feat, the youngster sitting down on the living room floor, the whole United States of America and the rest of the world all expected…
First up was the 400m. Without this the pursuit of the historic double would come to a shockingly abrupt end. It’s often argued that the 400m is the toughest, most complex event on the track. As Michael himself states “there’s a lot of strategy to it.” Too long to be classed a true sprint, but too short to be grouped under the long distance umbrella. It’s a constant battle between body and mind. The mind focuses on keeping the leg speed and knee lifts high while the legs themselves are screaming for mercy. Go out too hard and it’s only a matter of time before the lactic acid produced by one’s anaerobic metabolism starts to accumulate in the muscles, making every further step an act of sheer anguish. On the other hand, if one takes the first half of the race too easily they’re invariably left with too much to do to catch those at the head of the field. A lingering feeling of what might have been is burdened with the individual. Certainly not a feeling many would like to carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Johnson, however, was the master of balancing these intricacies. He would habitually run similar splits for each half of the race and such was his dominance over the distance a victory was seen as a mere formality. With this expectation came great pressure, however, heaped on further by the Games being held in his home country. This pressure was completely absent from his face as he crouched onto the blocks, though. In its place, an expression of pure focus on the job in hand. He crouched down and settled into the blocks, his bespoke golden spikes* matching the gold chain hanging down from his neck. In the living room I too crouched in expectation of the starter’s gun… “Bang!” Off he went and as he did so did my eyes return to the screen. He quickly assumed his trademark running style, a unique style that many coaches would seek to change if it hadn’t produced such outstanding results. Back bolt upright, he possessed a relatively low knee lift but an incredible leg speed that was simply unmatched across the circuit. His limbs resembled the pistons of a well-oiled machine. After all, that is what he was – a machine.
An Olympic record time of 43.49s and, more importantly, the gold medal were the rewards awaiting Johnson at the finishing line. His winning margin a huge one at such an elite level. Britain’s Roger Black, forever in Michael’s shadow, claimed a laudable silver medal but finished in 44.41s, almost a whole second behind. These were athletes at the very peak of their ability but, quite frankly, they were made to look rather ordinary once they came up against Johnson. I remember jumping up and down for joy and holding my arms aloft to reproduce the scenes that had occurred in Atlanta. The first task had been accomplished emphatically. Focus would now turn to the highly anticipated 2oom.
The 200m would mean stepping out of the safer haven of the quarter mile for Johnson and into the macho zone of the proud 100m sprinters with their oft-used intimidation tactics both in the call room and on the start line. They would be more pumped than ever to halt Johnson’s attempt at history. It’s normal for a 100m runner to step up to the 200m but a 400m athlete stepping down to the distance was far less common. Doing so was almost like challenging the authority of the “pure sprinters” if you like; athletes with less speed endurance than Johnson but who compensated with an incredibly quick cadence. Following Donovan Bailey’s victory and world record in the 100m this would be their final shot at glory.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the efforts of Frankie Fredericks that season had added another exciting element to the event. The affable Namibian certainly didn’t match the stereotypical demeanour of the 100m runner. A smile seemingly forever graced his face and by all accounts he remains one of the nicest guys to have ever participated in Track & Field. After silver in Barcelona ’92 in both the 100m and 200m he was determined to prove that nice guys can win as well. Johnson, a friend since they had competed against each other on the college circuit, was very much the dominant rival on the track but Fredericks had been able to finally reverse the trend on a July evening in Lausanne.
Fredericks ran 19.82s that night, beating Johnson by 3 hundredths and in doing so bringing Michael’s 21-race unbeaten streak spanning 2 years to an end. ‘Superman’ had broken the world record earlier that season in the American trials, sealing his place in the US team for the event in the process, but there was now a chink in his previously impregnable armour. The times in Lausanne, into a headwind of 1.1m/s, meant Atlanta with its fast track would be a mouth-watering prospect. Could the world record be eclipsed again? More pertinently, though, could Fredericks prove to be Johnson’s kryptonite when it mattered most?
The rounds were easily negotiated by both men, with the exuberant Trinidadian bronze medallist in the 100m, Ato Boldon, also exhibiting good form. The scene was set for a cracker of a final. Once again, I set up my imaginary blocks and crouched down waiting for the starter and his pistol. “Set… BANG!” Johnson had stumbled slightly out of the blocks or what he calls “more of a misstep, a flinch” but thankfully it would not derail his race; quite the opposite in fact. His drive phase was electric, seemingly every sinew engaged as he strived to make his dream a reality. As he neared the end of the curve he had reached Fredericks.
He passed him as he transitioned into the straight and then simply kept on going, building a gap over the field that became greater at every stride. His golden spikes were no longer pounding the ground, but floating above it. He was completely dialled in, reaching heights (figuratively speaking) that no other individual had ever reached before. As he crossed the line he turned to the infield clock. 19.32s: a new world record and an astonishing chunk taken off the previous one (19.66s). Johnson’s jaw dropped in disbelief as the crowd roared and thousands of cameras flashed as they attempted to capture this historic moment. After the shock came the euphoria. He bounded across the track in jubilation just like the little boy back in the living room. Then, on the podium, came the realisation of what he had achieved. Tears of joy proving that this astonishing athlete was human after all. The magnificent double was complete.
Fredericks in 19.68s and Boldon in 19.80s had finished 2nd and 3rd respectively but their positions and times were merely an afterthought amidst such athletic brilliance. Boldon summed up the victor’s run perfectly: “Nineteen-thirty two? That’s not a time. It sounds like my dad’s birth date.” It would be a time that would stay untouched until a certain Jamaican named Usain Bolt arrived on the scene. Johnson’s 400m world record, however, still remains. It’s a time that no-one has really come close to since and one suspects it will remain that way for a number of years.
At Atlanta, Michael Johnson proved himself to be an all-time great. A legend worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis. He was an athlete with a unique style achieving a unique feat; one that will be incredibly difficult to match. Atlanta ’96 truly was the Games of the golden spikes.
* The spikes, tested extensively in the Nike Sports Research Lab, were made of Zytel, a material, in short, composed of nylon and varying amounts of fibreglass depending on the use. The aim was simple: make Johnson feel like he wasn’t wearing any spikes at all. They weighed approximately 90g. The left shoe was half a size smaller than the right so to fit Johnson’s feet characteristics and, according to Nike, they gave medial and lateral support respectively so to ease progress around the bends of the track. The initial prototype was silver in colour to give a mirror effect as he ran but there was only one thing on Johnson’s mind – the gold. So they were changed to meet his requests and 8 pairs (one for each round of both events) were made for his assault on the history books. Afterwards, his coach Clyde Hart would keep the right shoe of the final pair while Johnson kept the left. The rest were sold at auction with the proceeds going to charity.
N.B. Unfortunately the order in which the finals took place are reversed in this video but its quality is one of the best around so sit back and enjoy these moments of sporting excellence.