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Liam Boylan-Pett | July 20, 2016

20 years ago, Michael Johnson set a gold standard for speed that's impossible to forget

20 years ago, Michael Johnson set a new gold standard for speed

by Liam Boylan-Pett

Photo: Mike Powell/Getty Images

As Ato Boldon rounded the turn in the final of the 200-meter dash at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the race he says he’s most known for even though he only won bronze, he experienced something that had never happened to him during a race: He had a conscious thought.

Gary M. Prior / Getty Images

Having gone through the first 80 meters in lane six without a hitch — neither world record holder Michael Johnson of the U.S. nor Namibian medal favorite Frankie Fredericks had passed him yet — the 22-year-old quite calmly wondered if that psychic back in Trinidad was onto something.

She had been right about the 100 three days earlier, after all. Before that race, Boldon says, she predicted "trouble at the start," and sure enough, multiple false starts and a disqualification of defending champion Linford Christie of Great Britain delayed the start of the race for several minutes. Once the gun finally went off, Boldon finished third in 9.90 seconds as Canada’s Donovan Bailey sprinted to a world record of 9.84 with Fredericks finishing second in 9.89.

The psychic had a different premonition for the Trinidadian sprinter before the 200, though, predicting, "Glory for Ato."

As he leaned to his left to fight back the inertia of his own speed around the turn, Boldon was starting to let himself believe she might be right.

Then three things happened in an instant.

First, Boldon noticed the camera flashes all around him. Tens of thousands of light bulbs popped on and off all around him like an animated version of Starry Night painted on the 82,884 spectators in the stands.

Then, Johnson flew by him in a blur in lane three, producing another, more jarring flash. Johnson’s gold shoes flared as they bolted towards the finish line, sparkling in bursts as they carried him to a gold medal and a world record of 19.32 seconds.

Finally, Fredericks went by him, too, and Boldon had one last thought: "That psychic doesn’t have a fricking clue what she’s talking about."


­­­­­The title of "World’s Fastest Man" is usually reserved for the world record holder in the 100-meter dash. But after Johnson sprinted past Boldon and into the record books on that balmy August night, he blurred convention. Bailey had raced to a 9.84 in the 100m, but Johnson’s 19.32 in the 200m equated to back-to-back 9.66’s.

It was an unfathomable burst of speed. After coming through the first 100 in 10.12 seconds, he ran the straightaway in 9.2. He beat Fredericks, whose 19.68 was the third fastest time in history, by four yards.

"I said before, the person who won the 100 meters was the fastest man alive," Boldon, just inches from Johnson in a packed room beneath the stadium, told reporters in the press conference following the race. "I think the fastest man alive is sitting to my left."

Mike Powell / Getty Images

(Johnson and Bailey would meet in a match race over 150 meters in May of 1997. Johnson pulled up lame with a hamstring injury 80 meters into the race with Bailey leading.)

The 19.32 was a result for a future era—a time that still seems otherworldly 20 years later. It continues to be an aspirational performance even for elite sprinters today. While Bailey’s world record time from ’96 isn’t even in the top-50 times anymore, only two people have run faster than Johnson: Jamaica’s Usain Bolt (who has run 19.19 and 19.30) and Yohan Blake (19.26).

"It wasn’t the perfect race," Johnson says looking back on it now, "but it was absolutely the best race I ever ran."

The run was an outlier — the Bob Beamon Leap of the 200. At the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, Beamon soared to a 29 feet, 2 ½ inch jump, obliterating the former world record of 27 feet 4 ¾ inches that had stood for one year.

"I happen to have been sitting right across from [Beamon’s jump]," says Clyde Hart, Johnson’s coach. "I didn’t think that would ever happen again — that someone would skip the marks."

Then Hart saw Johnson sprint past him into the home straight in Atlanta. Sitting in the stands by the 100-meter mark, he clicked his stopwatch and was shocked to see 9.9 (hand timing is usually about 0.2 seconds off).

"He’s never been here before," Hart thought to himself. No one had.

"I knew [at the 100] that he was going to run fast, but when I saw that 19.32," Hart pauses when talking about the race now, still amazed by the performance, "I looked twice … Skipping the 19.50s and the 19.40s? That was unbelievable."

Diamond in the Rough

One day in the hot Texas spring of 1986, Hart drove the four hours from Galveston to Waco wondering what the heck he was going to do. The head coach of the Baylor University track team, he had gone to Galveston to sign the top 100 and 200 runner in the state, but he was coming home empty handed. Derrick Florence, who Hart says was going to sign with Baylor, had changed his mind; he was going to go to Texas A&M instead.

Hart was counting on the recruit for his sprint relay teams, and without him, Hart was in desperation mode. He drove straight to his office and poured over results with his assistant coach. They noticed the runner who had taken second at the state meet behind Texas A&M’s newest gem, and hoped he hadn’t signed with a college yet. His name was Michael Johnson.

Hart hopped back in his car and drove 100 miles straight to Skyline High School in Dallas. He found a school that had a football coach leading the track team and a runner with a stride that people thought was too upright. He had run 21.30 in the 200 and shown promise in the 400—Hart says he heard Johnson ran 48 seconds to lead off many 4x400 relays only to watch his teammates give up the lead. Johnson wasn’t a state champ, but Hart at least thought he had found a guy who could contribute to his relays. Once Hart convinced Johnson’s parents, Paul, a truck driver, and Ruby, an elementary school teacher, that Baylor was the best spot for Johnson to grow as an athlete and a person, he had his guy.

"I was very lucky I happened to find a diamond in the rough," Hart says. "He was willing to come in and commit himself to our type of training and, of course, the rest is history."

Johnson surprised Hart, who made no attempt to change Johnson’s straight-backed stride, early. He ran 20.41 to break the Baylor school record in the 200 in his first outdoor track race as a freshman, but it wasn’t always perfect—Johnson struggled to stay healthy. Nonetheless, a pulled hamstring his freshman year, broken fibula as a sophomore, and another hamstring injury as a junior didn’t stop him from winning five NCAA titles (three individual and two relays) and turning into the world’s best 200 and 400 runner. Johnson ended a healthy senior year in 1990 as the world’s No. 1-ranked 200- and 400-meter runner with personal bests of 19.85 and 44.21.

Johnson signed a contract with Nike in 1990 after graduating from Baylor based on his success, and in 1991 went on to win the 200 at the World Championships in Tokyo by 0.33 seconds. He won the 200 at the 1992 Olympic Trials in 19.79 and, heading into Barcelona, seemed poised to supplant Carl Lewis as the U.S.’s track and field star.

I could do everything right and still not win Olympic gold or any other color.

Instead, food poisoning two weeks before the games thwarted his Olympic dreams. He finished sixth in the 200 semifinals and had to watch from the stands as Michael Marsh of the U.S. won in 20.01. Johnson recovered to win his first gold medal as a member of the U.S.’s 4 x 400-meter relay team, but it wasn’t enough. Missing out on individual glory because of something as foolish as food poisoning stuck with him. "I could do everything right and still not win Olympic gold or any other color," Johnson wrote in his autobiography, Gold Rush. "Something out of my control could happen again."

With the Barcelona disappointment in the back of his mind, he rebounded to win the 400 at the world championships in Stuttgart, Germany in 1993 and did what no other man had done at the 1995 world championships in Gothenburg, Sweden: Johnson won the 200 and the 400 in 19.79 and 43.39, respectively. He wasn’t satisfied. Johnson wanted to attempt the same double in Atlanta, on the world’s biggest stage. The U.S.’s Valerie Brisco-Hooks had completed the feat in 1984, but Johnson hoped to break new ground on the men’s side.

His coach wasn’t so sure. "At that point he had no individual gold," Hart says, "and now he’s telling me he wants to do both of them." It would be a more difficult double—there were three rounds each in the 200 and 400 at the world championships, but there would be four in each race in Atlanta. With heats, quarters, semis and finals, Johnson would have to race eight times in seven days.

But the 1996 Olympics were in the U.S. so Johnson wanted to do something special. Hart admits he didn’t take much convincing. They set a plan in motion to do what no one had ever done.

Everything from training to nutrition to recovery had to be considered and perfected — even the shoes.

All that glitters isn't gold

Johnson crossed the finish line Gothenburg in a sprint spike that had been released in 1984. Nike had updated the Nike Zoom S, but Johnson didn’t like the spike plate. The shoes were cumbersome — Johnson wanted light and stable.

Enter Tobie Hatfield. The younger brother of famed Nike designer Tinker — who worked on the Air Jordan 3 through the Air Jordan 30 along with multiple other Nike shoes (including the self-lacing Back to the Future Nike MAGs) — didn’t have his older brother’s training in architecture. Tobie did, however, share Tinker’s background as an athlete, both having been elite pole vaulters. He had worked his way through Nike, starting in plastics and foams in 1990 before moving onto product development. By 1995, Tobie was helping design shoes and Johnson’s shoe was his first assignment at the helm of a design team. It wasn’t an easy task.

"I challenged them," Johnson says of Hatfield and his team. In their first trip down to Dallas early in 1995, he told them he wanted a simple, light-weight shoe that would allow him to "feel" the track beneath his feet. He wanted stiffness and stability, too.

The team got right to work. They followed Johnson to workouts and races, using high-speed cameras to capture his stride and foot strike. In the 18 months leading up to the 1996 Olympic Trials, they brought countless pairs of prototypes for Johnson to try — "I don’t know how many pairs," Hatfield says, "but it was a lot." Their trial and error gave birth to what Hatfield says was the first spike with exposed foam on the bottom. They took out the receptacles for replaceable spikes, and instead used permanent ones. "No one had ever done stuff like this before," Hatfield says, "because there wasn’t an athlete pushing us to do it."

"The philosophy from our co-founder Bill Bowerman," Hatfield says, "is that the best shoe would be us putting nails in the bottom of someone’s foot, and that would be it." Hatfield and his team got close. For Johnson’s Atlanta run, they created a shoe that weighed three ounces — most spikes were at least six ounces at that point — and, more importantly to Hatfield, the shoe lived up to Johnson’s expectations. There was one problem with the color, though.

He thought they were the coolest track spikes he’d ever seen. Then Coach Hart spoke up: "I don’t like it."

About two months before the Trials, when Hatfield was in Taiwan helping a team assemble the shoe that Johnson would wear, a group from Nike brought the final prototypes to the Baylor track to show the Olympian. With Johnson eagerly awaiting, they pulled out a pair of reflective cleats whose mirror-effect coloring showed the sprinter’s face back to him as he held them up to the light.

Johnson was flabbergasted. He thought they were the coolest track spikes he’d ever seen.

Then Coach Hart spoke up: "I don’t like it."

"Why not?" Johnson asked.

"You won’t be able to see the mirror effect," Hart said. "They’ll look silver."

Johnson realized his coach was right. Before he knew it was coming out of his mouth, he said, "I want them to be gold."

At about that same time in Taiwan, Hatfield was having a similar revelation. He held one of the "mirror" shoes and thought, "These look too silver. Michael’s looking for two golds."

The (Almost) Perfect Race

At 7:15 p.m. on Aug. 1, 1996, a sticky, humid day in Atlanta, Johnson rushed through the strip of warmup track tucked beneath the stands of Centennial Olympic Stadium. He had just coasted to an easy win in the 200-meter semifinal, running 20.27, but with less than two hours to go until the final, he needed to get away from the stadium.

Instead of doing his final warmup under the stands, he met Coach Hart, hopped on a bus and went to the practice track a half-mile away.

It was quiet there. Of the eight 200 finalists, only Obadele Thompson of Barbados joined Johnson at the track. The hum of the crowd was distant instead of right on top of them. Johnson laid on a massage table to relax and regroup as Hart walked around the track nervously. The stadium lights off, a dim glow from the few security lights illuminated the track.

Johnson began his warmup. Having run the semifinal only two hours before, he went through half of his normal routine — jogging, stretching, drills, strides — as he listened to Tupac’s "Me Against the World" through his headphones on repeat.

The 400 was a formality. He had coasted through three rounds before racing to an Olympic record of 43.49 to win the final by 0.92 seconds. He had his first gold, but the 200 final was the race he had been gunning for all along. It was the race that would take Johnson from Olympic Gold Medalist to legend. The race that would take the gold shoes from brash and cocky to prophetic and iconic.

There were seven races in his legs already, but Johnson felt fresh. With 45 minutes to go, Johnson hopped back onto the bus for a silent ride back to the track. "Watch your start" and "Go get ’em," were the only words Hart said to him as Johnson went back into the stadium.

He sat in a corner of the warmup area and visualized the race. He let himself think about the disappointment of 1992 — still sticking with him four years later — but he also thought about the possibility in front of him. "We trained to be able to produce my best race in the eighth race of that championship," Johnson says. This was the race he had circled for four years. He laced up his spikes — his eighth pair of the games — and walked out onto the track.

The cheers were deafening. Fans yelled Johnson’s name as he made his way to the start line with his seven other competitors.

"Michael got a rush of adrenaline at exactly the right moment," Hart says. "If he had been underneath those stands, with the crowd cheering and all that, that adrenaline might have started then. You get it and then it kind of disperses, but he got it at the right moment."

Glenn Cratty / Getty Images

The crowd hushed as Johnson and the fastest 200-meter runners in the world settled into their blocks. Johnson’s gold shoes glistened in one last moment of stillness until, finally, the gun cracked.

Johnson was off. It was one of the best reactions to the gun he ever had — maybe too good. His arms weren’t prepared for the burst, and because they didn’t keep up with his legs with over-exaggerated swings, he faltered on the third step of the race.

"I recognized the stumble," Johnson says when looking back on the race. "I immediately made the correction." Recounting the race, it’s like Johnson’s mind is replaying a slow-motion video of each and every step. Boldon says he never had conscious thoughts during a race, Johnson was constantly thinking.

"I remember that correction going well," he says. "I remember executing around the bend exactly like I wanted to. I remember making ground on the competitors outside of me quicker than I expected to, so I knew everything was going well. I can remember that throughout the race, that everything was going according to plan and I was executing as well as could be expected."

Crossing the finish line in first was a combination of relief and joy, Johnson says. Then he remembers seeing the clock.

19.32

He raised his arms and screamed. He continued running even though he had felt a twinge in his right hamstring that would keep him from joining the 4 x 400-meter relay team. He was filled with relief and joy.

"I was overwhelmed," he says.

For everyone else, it was shock. "I went and tapped on the clock," Boldon says, "because we’d never seen a time that looked like that before."

"Everybody knew because of the amount Michael beat everybody by that it was special," Hart says, "but when they saw that time, they thought, ‘Is that for real?’"

The State of Speed

Johnson was a star, and with it came fame. He was on the cover of Time and Sports Illustrated and he got his own Wheaties box. Marie-José Pérec of France had become the second woman to win the 200-400 double in 1996, but Johnson was the media darling, especially in American circles. He won the ESPY for best male athlete in 1997, and if it wasn’t for an up-and-coming star named Tiger Woods, he probably would have been Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year.

He would go on to add a 400-meter world record to his resume in 1999 and win gold in the Sydney Olympics in the 400 and 4 x 400-meter relay, too. Every Olympic medal (five) Johnson ever won was gold.

Johnson is still involved with the sport as a commentator for the BBC, and, honestly, track and field is in a similar place to what it was when he ran to fame 20 years ago.

Ben Johnson’s 1988 drug bust still hung over the sport when Johnson was at his best. (Michael Johnson, who never failed a drug test, lost his 4 x 400 gold medal from 2000 because teammate Antonio Pettigrew admitted to using drugs.) Today’s sport isn’t much better. The International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s governing body, has banned Russia from international competition because of a Word Anti-Doping Agency report that found a "deeply rooted culture of cheating" in Russian athletics. The top four finishers in this July’s Prefontaine Classic 100 meters had to miss time in the sport due to doping bans.

There are still glimmers and flashes of hope, though. Drug testing has improved. The World Anti-Doping Agency recently retested samples from the 2008 and 2012 games to find a total of 54 athletes who were using performance-enhancing drugs (not all of the athletes were track and field athletes). While athletes who lost to the cheats may have been robbed of their moment, there is at least some redemption.

While Bolt has ignited the sport with strikes of lightning, he has said this will be his final Olympics and he has no clear heir. A new batch of runners are coming through, though. Finishing behind Bolt and Justin Gatlin in the 100 at last year’s World Championships in Beijing in a tie for third was Trayvon Bromell of the U.S. and Andre De Grasse of Canada. At 20 and 21, respectively, track has burgeoning rivalry. Sydney McLaughlin, a 16-year-old from New Jersey, just became the youngest track and field Olympian in the U.S. since 1972 after she took third in the 400 hurdles on July 10.

Andy Lyons / Getty Images

There’s the present, as well. Bolt isn’t the sport’s only star — the U.S.’s Allyson Felix causes a stir, too. When she stepped onto the 200-meter indoor track at the New York City Armory on 168th Street on Feb. 20, a roar filled the 4,000-seat stadium. And that was just for her warm-ups. It wasn’t the spectacle that is a Stephen Curry pre-game shootout, but the buzz when Felix steps on the track is palpable, even in her pre-race routine. She went on to win the 60 meters easily to kick off her 2016 racing campaign — a year with high expectations.

Felix wasn’t into track in 1996 — she was more of a basketball fan and was captivated by the gymnastics competition in Atlanta. "I don’t remember watching [the 200]," she says today, "but I do remember the gold shoes." She was a shoe geek then, just like she is now — she estimates she owns about 250 Air Jordans.

Once she joined the track team in high school, one of the first things she studied was Johnson’s race. "It was breathtaking," she says.

Soon after, she was the one sending shockwaves through the 200. She won the Olympic Trials in the event in 2004 at the age of 19, and has been one of the world’s best runners since. Individual Olympic gold eluded her in 2004 and 2008 as she took silver in the 200 both years, but she redeemed herself with a gold medal run in 2012, running 21.88.

At 30, Felix wanted to replicate history in 2016 — by matching Johnson’s 200-400 double. "It’s a huge challenge," she said in June before the Olympic Trials, where she would need to finish in the top three in each event to qualify for Rio, "but it’s one that I feel it’s time to take."

Like Johnson, she wanted everything to be perfect — she even worked with Nike to create a shoe. Based on Felix’s feedback, the Nike team tested 30 versions of the spike plate and more than 70 modifications of the upper. Like Johnson, she has a spike she loves. She says the Zoom Superfly Flyknit feels like she isn’t even wearing shoes.

It wasn’t meant to be, though. Felix rolled her right ankle on an exercise ball in May. The injury derailed her training — she had to run counterclockwise around the track to avoid aggravating it. Still, she came from behind to capture the 400 title at the Olympic Trials on July 3 to book her fourth trip to the Games. Felix finished fourth in the 200 seven days later — missing out on the team by .01 seconds — and her shot at joining Johnson, Brisco-Hooks and Pérec was over.

"Honestly disappointed, you know?" she told reporters when asked how she felt after the 200. "The whole year, that has been what I was working for."

It’s not the double she hoped for, but she’s still running for gold in Rio — and she’ll be in her custom shoes.

She won’t say what color they’ll be.

Credits

Editor: Elena Bergeron

Producer: Luke Zimmermann

About the Author

Liam Boylan-Pett is an associate editor at Running Times. He was a culture writer for PolicyMic, and can be found on Twitter at @liam_bp. The Bath, Mich., native was the 315th American to run a sub-four-minute mile. He lives in Clinton, N.J.

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