Michael Johnson gave greatness a new definition at the 1996 Summer Olympics Games. He was one of the stars at Atlanta Olympics, becoming the first athlete in history (and the only man still) to win 200m and 400m gold medals during a single Olympic event. Though his world records have been overtaken now, Johnson still holds a place in the history books as one of the greatest sprinters of all-time.
Johnson dominated the track for almost a decade, winning four Olympic and eight world titles. Such was his greatness that at the Olympics and World Championships, he always won a gold – never a silver or a bronze.
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The rise to the top
Johnson began running at the age of 11. In high school, he developed into one of the top 200m runners in Texas but his focus was always academics. However, once he enrolled at Baylor University, his athletics career took flight. It was at Baylor where he first began competing in 400m races.
Johnson also developed a unique style – running with an upright back while taking short strides with a low knee lift. Johnson fully dedicated his time to athletics after completing his degree at Baylor. During the 1991 World Championships, Johnson was crowned world 200m champion.
Later on, he won the 200m at the 1992 Olympic trials in 19.79 seconds and many believed he would easily clinch a medal. But he suffered a huge blow in Barcelona as he suffered food poisoning, missing out on the finals of the 200m event.
Johnson, though, recovered well in time and finished first in the 4x400m relay, winning his first Olympic gold medal for USA. Despite the achievement, he felt the pinch of missing out on an individual medal.
That disappointment proved to be a motivation. The American scaled new peaks in his individual athletics career. From 1993, he went unbeaten in 400m for eight years, winning 58 races during that stretch.
He won the 400m in the 1993 World Championships and during the next edition of the 1995 Worlds, Johnson won both the 200m and the 400m events. He set sights on doing the same during his next Olympic appearance – a feat no man had ever completed before.
The big moment
The amount of pressure Johnson had on his shoulders heading into the 1996 Olympic games was immense. He was in sublime form and had scripted new records but missing out on an individual Olympic gold again would be a disaster. Johnson even requested the World Athletics Federation to change the schedule as he could compete in both 200m and 400m races, which they agreed.
And then there were the shoes. Who can forget those shoes?
He wore a pair of golden Nike boots that the sports company had personally customised for him as if to indicate that there was only one medal that he was going to take away. The fact that he was going to perform in front of his home crowd was another factor which put him under pressure.
“Opting for gold shoes could have been considered downright cocky, but I was confident and never doubted my ability to deliver gold medals to match my shimmering footwear,” Johnson wrote in his book Gold Rush.
Johnson finally delivered and he did that in style, becoming the first man to win 200m and 400m gold medals at the same Olympic event. He not only finished first but had dominated his opponents, setting new records by producing a performance for the ages.
On July 29, 1996 Johnson finished first in the 400m race, recording 43.49 seconds. Starting in lane four, Johnson burst with speed and after the final bend, it was evident who was going to emerge winner. He accelerated and finished by a distance to bag gold alongside setting a new Olympic record. Great Britain’s Roger Black ended second by clocking 44.41 seconds.
Three days later on August 1, he was competing in the 200m race and was favourite to finish first in his pet event. Johnson was also up against Namibian Frankie Fredricks and Trinidad and Tobago’s Ato Boldon, two of the finest 200m runners during that time.
He was placed in lane three and as the gun went off, Johnson trailed but gathered pace as soon as he completed the bend. He overtook everyone before finishing the race in dominating fashion.
Fredericks, who finished second, even recorded a personal best by 0.14 seconds at the 200m race but there was little he could do to stop Johnson. Boldon, who bagged bronze and was initially leading the race, bowed down to Johnson to pay his respect after the American had created a new landmark.
“This man is surely not human,” said Boldon in disbelief. “19.32, that’s not a time, it sounds like my dad’s birthday.”
Even Johnson was amazed by his feat. So much that he thought the clock had recorded a different timing.
“I thought I could do 19.5,” he said after creating the record. “But not this, not 19.3. I’d have lost a lot of money betting that I wouldn’t get 19.3. And I’m shocked. I can’t think what 19.3 really means. It is so much more than I expected or predicted, I can’t understand it yet.”
Johnson would go on to compete at the Olympics again in 2000. He missed out on the opportunity to retain his 200m title after suffering an injury in the trials for the final.
However, Johnson defended his 400m Olympic crown, becoming the first athlete to clinch back-to-back Olympic gold medals in that discipline.
Johnson’s records have been broken now and the iconic golden shoes that he ran have also been auctioned but he’ll always be remembered as someone who changed the face of the sport in more ways than one.