With Wayde van Niekerk setting a new 400m world record just a couple of days ago, Michael Johnson’s name has finally been erased from the top of the record books. Granted, he’s still a part of the group that holds the 4x400m relay world record from 1993, but when it comes to individual events, both of his sprint records have conclusively been moved to the history books.
The nature of the sport is such that records will almost inevitably be broken, but there’s one thing that no one – except an unlikely future positive doping test – can ever take away from Michael Johnson; his medals.
He is one of the most decorated athletes in history with 4 Olympic and 8 World Championship gold medals. Only the likes of Usain Bolt, Carl Lewis and LaShawn Merritt can rival his achievements on the global stage, but Johnson is distinct in being the only one to have only gold medals in his collection. That’s proof of a true championship performer.
And in the wake of his 400m record being broken, I figured it would be fitting to have a short look back at what is arguably Johnson’s crowning career achievement: the 200m and 400m double from the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
By the mid 1990s Michael Johnson was already being lauded as one of the all-time greats, but he was still missing one important piece of the puzzle. The highest accolade there is in track & field: an individual Olympic gold medal.
His mission going into the 1996 season was clear. Win gold in both the 200m and 400m events at the Olympics. He had already achieved this double the year before at the World Championships in Gothenburg, but no male had ever done it at the Olympics. Being one of the poster-boys of Atlanta 1996, Johnson was under immense pressure to perform in front of his home crowd.
In partnership with Nike, Johnson and his team came up with an audacious design of golden spikes that he was going to wear in Atlanta. It was a bold statement to all his competitors that he was going for gold. Needless to say it was great marketing as well.
First up was the 400m and Johnson easily navigated through the rounds to qualify for the final on July 29. He wonderfully executed his race plan and it doesn’t look like he was ever in any sort of trouble. His winning time of 43.49 was a new Olympic record and he missed the world record of Harry ‘Butch’ Reynolds by just two tenths of a second. He was so dominant that the second placed athlete, Roger Black of Great Britain, was almost a whole second behind with 44.41. A proverbial country mile.
Johnson later said that he felt like he was in world record shape, but that he had to conserve as much energy as possible because he still had to run 4 more rounds of the 200m.
He comfortably secured a place in the 200m final which was on August 1, but here the opposition was much stronger. His main rivals were the Trinidadian Ato Boldon and Frankie Fredericks of Namibia. A month earlier Johnson set a new world record of 19.66 at the US Olympic Trials at that same stadium and he was indeed the favorite to win, but Fredericks beat Johnson just two weeks before the Games at a meeting in Oslo. The race was definitely on.
Johnson won in an astonishing time of 19.32 seconds which immortalized his name among the sport’s greatest legends.
I was 3 years old at the time, so of course I didn’t see it live. I have no tangible recollection of that period in my life, but one of my earliest childhood memories when it comes to athletics is being mesmerized by Johnson’s 19.32. It was such a mythic performance, and as the years went by and I started to learn more about athletics history, his 200m run from Atlanta became a sort of an obsession of mine. I studied it meticulously and tried to understand how he was able to run more than three tenths of a second faster than anyone else before.
The track experts were equally taken aback when they saw the time and it was considered to be one of the very highest quality records — unlikely to be beaten for generations.
Fredericks and Boldon put up a brave fight, finishing 2nd and 3rd with times of 19.68 and 19.80, respectively. The depth of those times wasn’t matched for 16 years until the 200m final at the 2012 London Olympics.
During his record-breaking run he unfortunately sustained a slight hamstring injury which prevented him from running in the relays and winning his third gold medal (team USA won even without him). But it wasn’t a disaster, his main goal of individual glory was successfully achieved. An Olympic record in the 400m and a world record in the 200m were just a massive bonus.
His famous golden shoes helped propel him to a historic 200-400m double and he remains the only male to have done it. The two women that managed to do the same double are Valerie Brisco-Hooks (USA) in 1984 in Los Angeles and Marie-Jose Perec (FRA) at the same Olympics as Johnson in Atlanta 1996.
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