ATLANTA — The race was over, the world record was in pieces, and the loudspeakers were blasting well-chosen rock lyrics — “You’re unbelievable!” The hero of the moment was jogging around the track in golden shoes, with an American flag in his hands and an ice pack on his right leg. The crowd rose to applaud. Now, with the expected miracle behind him, we’ll see how much steam this Michael Johnson really has.
It should be enough, of course, that he has two gold medals from these Olympics. It should be enough that, in the span of three days, he pulled off a double-victory never before performed by a man in Olympic track and field history, the 200 and the 400, as different as wrestling and boxing. It should be enough that he burned a hole in the track Thursday night, pushing a world record not by a few meager hundredths of a second but by the track equivalent of a football field.
And it should be enough that he got to stand on a podium most of us only dream about, in front of his countrymen, and see his flag raised and hear his anthem played.
But if that were enough, why would Michael Johnson have hired a public relations firm before the Games? Why would his agent tell him to smile more when he crossed the finish line? Why would Johnson, a marketing major in college, tell a magazine, “I’m going to be The Man at these Olympics. . . . I’m planning what type of advertising and media I want, what type of image I want people to see.”
You would think Olympic athletes would have learned something by now: You can’t blueprint America’s loving you — especially track and field stars. Carl Lewis should have taught them that.
And Johnson, of all people, should know it. He came to Atlanta needing only to keep quiet and run his meticulous races and let NBC launch the worldwide chorus of sainthood — and instead he decides to get into a spitting match with Lewis and almost takes apart the whole thing.
Fortunately, there was no Carl Lewis in the stadium Thursday night — as there had been Monday, when Lewis’ gold- medal long jump was still buzzing in the air when Johnson ran his 400-meter final. That seemed to spark a petty verbal feud that had Johnson shrugging off Lewis’ accomplishments, and saying he thought Lewis “should step down” as the main man of track and field. The next day, Johnson refused to show for a Nike press conference because Lewis was there.
Dumb. As dumb as Lewis in 1984, when he and his agent made all those predictions before the Games. We all remember how that backfired. “King Carl” is still trying to recover.
Thank goodness then, for 9 p.m. on Thursday, a mild, sticky evening, when
— with no Carl in sight — Johnson got back to doing what he does best: stunning people. He came out of the blocks in the 200-meter final, stumbled briefly, then tore up everything you ever thought you knew about this race.
Johnson on the track is simply a sight to behold. He runs like something out of an old black-and-white newsreel, stiff and upright, his powerful legs taking low, skimming strides, tight and starched, as if he were running in a tuxedo. It looks funny to anyone too young to remember what Jesse Owens looked like when he ran. Otherwise, it is hauntingly familiar.
But as funny as it seems, when Johnson comes out of the final turn, he is usually in a different zip code than his challengers. And he was again Thursday night. He led Frankie Fredericks from Namibia by a full stride — and Fredericks, the last man to beat Johnson, was running the race of his life.
Down the straightaway, with the crowd on its feet, Johnson seemed to only get faster. And when he crossed the tape, all alone, he shot a glance to the clock and threw his hands into the air: 19.32. He had beaten his own world mark by more than a third of a second. For those of you unfamiliar with track, that’s like going from a black-and-white TV to Surround Sound.
To put it in perspective, before Johnson came along, the world record was 19.72, set by Italy’s Pietro Mennea. That lasted 17 years. The next man to break Johnson’s record is probably in the womb right now.
“I got more than I expected tonight,” said Johnson, who finally made up for his disappointment in 1992, when food poisoning led to his bombing out of the 200, a race he was expected to win. “I was hoping maybe a 19.6 or at best a 19.5. I never would have thought a 19.32.”
“Can you describe what it feels like to go that fast?” someone asked.
Johnson smiled. “All I can think of is, when I was a kid, my dad got me a go-cart. And there was this big hill at the end of my street. And the higher up you got, the faster the go-cart went.
“That’s the only thing that really compares. Go get yourself a go-cart, find a hill, and you’ll know how it feels.”
This was wonderful stuff — much better than the childish jousting with Lewis over who should sit on the throne. The fact is, no matter how incredible Johnson’s accomplishments, he is hardly guaranteed long-term superstar status. This is track and field, remember? A forgotten sport all but two weeks every four years. If winning a 200 and 400 were enough to put you over the top, then you’d be able to tell me the two women who have already accomplished this in Olympic history.
Johnson is, by all accounts, a private, serious, meticulous man, who lays out his clothes and maps out his schedule and leaves nothing to chance. And perhaps he has done this with his publicity plans. I’m sure Nike’s tireless marketing people haven’t helped matters, nor has his agent or his bodyguard or the rest of his “team.” Maybe all this hype is why, before coming to Atlanta, Johnson said, “There are two household names in the history of track, Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis. I’m in position to be the third.
“(My races) will be the biggest show of the Olympics.”
Michael. As Al Davis might say: Just run, baby. The last thing we need from a brilliant Olympic star is a sense of calculation and market positioning. Better to remember the blaze with which you came down the straightaway Thursday night. Better to remember those golden shoes churning like a gerbil’s feet on a treadmill.
Better to remember what the third-place finisher, Ato Boldon, said when asked about his Johnson’s race:
“I noticed a blue blur and a swoosh. And I said to myself, ‘OK, there goes first place.’ “
All by himself. At a moment like that, who needs words?