Michael Johnson’s 200m Olympic and world record was one of the standout performances of Atlanta 1996. But it took years of work and planning to get it right…
On the start line of the 200m final at the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996, Michael Johnson was fairly sure that anything less than an Olympic and world record was going to mean the failure of what had become his life’s mission. The US sprinter had already secured the gold medal in his favourite distance, the 400m, three days earlier. Now he was attempting to secure a historic double. But this was the hard part.
“The 200m was going to be a very fast race,” Johnson said. “There was Frankie Fredericks, and I’d lost my last 200m race to him going into the Games. I’d been racing Frankie for years, since my university days, and they were always close; he was always going to push me. Ato Boldon was also doing very well at the time. So I wasn’t thinking, ‘My objective is to break the Olympic or world record’. I was already the world record holder. My objective was to win the race. But I did think: ‘It will need to be a record-breaking run to win this today.’”
Johnson duly obliged, thundering home in 19.32 seconds in his unique upright style. His time would stand as the fastest Olympic and world mark for 12 years. Fredericks, of Namibia, ran an African record of 19.68s to get silver. Twenty-three years on, Johnson’s run that day remains the third-fastest 200m of all time.
What makes his performance all the more miraculous is the fact that nobody seemed to think it could be done: indeed, the track schedule for Atlanta had initially made competing in both races look impossible for Johnson. “My coach and I knew it was going to be a huge task, and there were years of build-up to try and actually give me the opportunity to attempt this historic double of 200m and 400m gold,” Johnson said. “We had to lobby the IOC and the IAAF to change the schedule, to make it realistic to run in both races. It was years in the making. And once that became conducive to me even making my attempt, we still knew I’d have to be in the best shape and conditioning of my life. The competition was going to be stiff.
“So the commitment that year was to get me at my best to be able to deliver my finest performance in Atlanta. It wasn’t just the hard work on the track each day. It was the planning and strategy, getting those answers right.”
Winning the 400m was the (relatively) more simple part of the mission. “I was confident for the 400m,” Johnson said. “The competition was not nearly as hard, and I hadn’t lost a 400m race in years.” Johnson cruised to victory – in an Olympic-record 43.39s, nearly a second clear of Great Britain’s Roger Black. “So when the 200m came around, I’d gotten an indication from that what sort of shape I was in and how technically sound I was in terms of racing.”
But Johnson felt on less firm ground with the shorter sprint. “I’d lost a 200m through a massive mistake of my own a couple of weeks prior, and the 200m was also made more difficult because it was coming after four rounds of the 400m. There was also the fact that the semi and the final of the 200m were in the same evening session, two-and-a-half hours apart. I didn’t know what effect that would have.”
A home crowd helped, he believes. “Knowing you are on home soil, you are representing your country, whether you’re in Atlanta or Minnesota – that is inspirational and special. It heightened the motivation,” Johnson said. “The crowd has an effect. And I knew I was in good form. Everything had worked out during the season. I’d broken the world record during the Olympic trials a month earlier. It had been a great season.
“When I crossed the line it was a mixture of feelings. I was elated to complete the double because that’s what all the build-up had been about. And then, having broken the record again, and by so much, I was ecstatic. I also felt really relieved.”
That night, Johnson celebrated in style. “I wasn’t able to have a party after the 400m because I’d immediately turned my attention to the 200m,” he said. “So that evening we had a great time with my parents, brothers and sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins, friends, team-mates, training partners, people who had supported me. It was a fantastic night.”
Johnson’s record was finally broken by Usain Bolt at Beijing 2008, the day before the Jamaican’s 22nd birthday. Johnson had publicly backed Bolt to do it, and has never been upset to see his times bettered.
“When I broke the 200m world record [set by Italian Pietro Mennea] the first time, it had stood since 1979. It was one of the oldest ones in the books, and it should have been moving along faster than it had been,” Johnson said.
“People are surprised that I’m not disappointed not to hold them any more but I’m not, because I had my time. I was the fastest when I was competing. Once I hang up my spikes, I can’t control it. My hope is that the events that I ran, the ones I love the most, continue to be exciting and that people carry on running faster, rather than it being boring.
“You’re either the all-time fastest, or you’re not any more. I’ve been retired for over 20 years, so where I sit on the list isn’t important now. You’re either on the top or you’re not. And I’m not.”
Johnson is sure of one thing, though. The Olympic Games will always be a forum where athletes reach the very highest pinnacles. “Many records get broken at the Olympic Games because of the level of motivation,” he said. “When there’s a medal on the line, people are at their finest.
“You break the Olympic record, you’ve got a good chance at the world record too. It took Usain Bolt to break the world record to break my Olympic record, because they were one and the same. And my 400m record was set at a World Championships but it took a run at the Rio 2016 Olympics to beat it.”