For one of the world’s fastest humans, the last quarter-century has flown by in a flash.
Has it really been 25 years since Michael Johnson shocked the world in Atlanta?
“It seems like it’s yesterday,” said the Baylor legendary sprinter’s coach Clyde Hart, a legend in the sport of track and field in his own right. “It’s hard to believe it’s 25 years.”
Johnson can close his eyes and the memories of that time appear as briskly as a Google image search, as fresh as if they happened yesterday. Then there are moments his body reminds him he’s now 53 years old.
“I was talking to Coach about this, some days it feels like it was not long ago at all, and sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago. You kind of get both perspectives,” Johnson said.
In contrast, the eight years prior to those 1996 Atlanta Olympics crept along like a Sunday sermon for Johnson. He had what Hart labeled as “eight years of mad” percolating inside of him, motivating his workouts leading up to Atlanta.
Back in 1988, when Johnson was a 20-year-old sophomore at Baylor, he broke his leg at the NCAA Championships, preventing a prime opportunity to make the U.S. team for the Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea.
“He definitely would have been on the Olympic team, would have medaled. If he would have gotten the gold, I don’t know. But he would have definitely been on the relay, he was running that well in ’88,” Hart said.
Four years later, Johnson looked like the man to beat in the 200 entering the Barcelona Games. He nearly eclipsed the American record at the U.S. Olympic Trials. But shortly before the Olympics, Johnson traveled to Spain for a meet and contracted food poisoning. He had to halt his workouts due to the sickness, and shed 10 pounds over the course of the week.
“At that point, he was lean. He didn’t have any weight to lose,” Hart said. “When he was losing, he was losing body mass, he wasn’t losing fat.”
Johnson recovered enough by Barcelona to race, but he failed to advance through the first round of the 200.
“He was upset, wanted to pack up and come home,” Hart said. “I almost had to physically stop him and say, you’re not leaving. You’re still going to run on the 4x400 relay, and Michael Johnson at 90 percent is still better than anyone else on that relay at 100 (percent). So, you can’t run 43 flat. A 44 flat will help them. Not many can do that. He opted to stay and run the relay. Got his gold medal, but it wasn’t the one he wanted.”
So, Atlanta shaped up as the Michael Johnson Redemption Tour. But he wanted more than vindication. He wanted more than one individual gold. Over the course of his workouts and buildup for the 1996 Games, a thought crystallized in MJ’s mind: Why not try the double? Why not try for gold in both the 200 and 400?
One mammoth hurdle lingered. The usual race schedule for the World Championships and Olympics made attempting a double impossible, a foolhardy mission. Between the prelims of one event and the semifinals of another, there was just too much overlap, not enough breaks between races.
That always bugged Johnson. He can remember sitting in the stands at the 1991 World Championships after winning gold in the 200 and watching the 400 races unfold, knowing he was strong enough to win that race, too. Two years later, he had the same nagging feeling when he watched the 200 races play out on his way to 400-meter gold.
“It was painful to sit there and watch somebody else win a race that I could win, all but for the fact that the schedule just didn’t allow me to do both. I had always wanted to do both,” Johnson said. “I thought by 1995, going into ’96, that I was ready and capable and mature enough as an athlete that I could handle both of them.”
At the start of 1995, Johnson approached Hart with the idea of chasing the historic 200-400 gold at the Atlanta Games. No man had ever won both races before. At first Hart wasn’t sure it was a good idea. The way MJ was running, the coach was confident that he’d win his first Olympic individual gold in whichever event he entered. Didn’t matter which one, the 200 or 400. Outside of the scheduling conflicts, trying for the double felt too risky to the coach.
Johnson demonstrated equal savvy as a salesman as he did as a sprinter.
“Michael’s a very smart kid. He’s smarter than me,” Hart said. “He said, ‘Coach, I want to do something that’s never been done, the Olympics are here in the United States, on my home turf, and I want to do it. We can do it.’ I said, ‘Mike, if you want to do it, we’ll do it. … It means you’re going to have to work harder than you’ve ever worked. Ability is one thing, but it’s going to be a test of endurance.’’
Johnson appealed to the IOC’s track and field committee to tweak the schedule to at least make a run at the double possible. What really greased the wheels, though, was the roof-raising show he staged at the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Johnson blazed to wins in the 200, 400 and the 4x400 relay, setting meet records in both of his individual races in times of 19.79 and 43.39, respectively.
“We used that as a test run,” Hart said. “He said, ‘Let’s show the Olympic committee that it can be done.’ Of course, he goes over and barely misses the world record in the 200, doing the double. Well, the next day is when we hear that they’ve decided to make it where it’s possible. Now television has a story: Can he do it? Will he be the first man to win both of them? Can he break the Olympic record and do it?”
Johnson barreled into the 1996 season in peak form. The Olympic schedule was doable, but promised to be taxing. To win gold in both races, Johnson would have to run eight races over the course of eight days, with one day off, closing with the 200-meter semifinals and final on the same night.
He attacked his workouts with a vengeance. He built up 10 pounds of extra muscle in the weight room. But he didn’t go full Ivan Drago mode — he allowed himself room to breathe, to have some fun, to eat. One of MJ’s favorite race day meals was a burger, fries and chocolate shake from Burger King. He also spent some time in Atlanta in the year leading up to the Olympics and came across a bang-up barbecue joint named Fat Matt’s Rib Shack.
As one of the faces of the Olympics, Johnson couldn’t travel around Atlanta without being mobbed. But one night he craved those ribs.
“One of my assistants went over to Fat Matt’s one day and (Matt) packed up a little care package and sent it back with him and he brought it back to my hotel,” Johnson said. “Because I didn’t leave my hotel pretty much the whole Games. But he brought it back over.
“For me, balance was always important. I don’t think I could have had as long a career as I did without having that balance. Of course, I had to eat healthy and understand how important nutrition was to competing. But without that balance every now and then, eating ribs certainly isn’t going to help you run faster, but one meal of ribs during the entire Olympics isn’t going to slow you down, either.”
Those slathered pieces of pork goodness certainly didn’t stick to Johnson’s ribs. Nobody could catch him. Johnson and Hart took a very deliberate approach to the task, a “one (race) down, seven to go” type of laser focus.
And it worked. In the 400 final, Johnson, looking almost regal with his distinctive upright posture, ran 43.50, an Olympic record, and won by a good five meters.
“Then we start running those 200s. Same approach — five down, three to go,” Hart said.
On the last day, which featured both the semifinal and final races, Johnson and Hart stepped through their usual pre-race workouts. Hart historically made his athletes run a hard 50 or 100 meters two or three times roughly 30 to 45 minutes before the race. He wanted to trick the body into releasing endorphins and being ready for the hard 200 that was to follow.
During this particular pre-race workout, Johnson zipped down the track so fast that he looked as though he might fly out of his singlet.
“I told him, Mike, I want you to run hard, but you’re flying. I’d never seen him go that fast. So, I slowed him down,” Hart said.
For the final, Johnson drew Lane 3. In the 200, lanes 4-6 are preferable, because the curve flattens out quicker.
“In the 200, everyone knows you’d rather be out, because you can’t run a curve as fast as you can run a straightaway,” Hart said. “People say, no telling what he would have run if he would have had one of those lanes. I say, ‘Well, he ran pretty good from Lane 3.’
“Michael’s the best curve runner in the history of track and field. I wasn’t worried. People ask, Coach, how do you train that? You can’t train that. It’s a natural thing.”
Johnson said he always felt nervous before a race. Years later he told Hart that the 200 final in Atlanta brought a different level of anxiety, though. While in the starting blocks, he briefly thought, what have I gotten myself into? If I don’t win, people will call me a failure.
Then the gun went off, and Johnson shot off like the starter’s pistol was loaded and he was the bullet. He went out so fast that he even stumbled a little, but he steadied himself and caught the racer in lane four within a few steps, despite the stagger.
You know the rest. As the fans chanted, “Mi-chael! Mi-chael!” and the cameras flashed, Johnson not only left that guy but everyone else in the world behind, powering to the win in a world-record clocking of 19.32 seconds. As he motored down the home stretch, his signature gold Nike spikes led a golden path to the top of the podium.
“There were so many different emotions when I crossed the finish line,” Johnson said. “It was relief that I had done it, that I had succeeded. It was joy, that I was successful in completing the double and making history. And then pure elation that I had broken the world record by so much in the 200 meters.”
The aftermath was a blur. At one point a group of sportswriters from China approached Hart and asked him how it felt to coach the world’s first 200-400 double winner. “I told them, I feel like Christopher Columbus when he discovered the new world. He didn’t care if it was the U.S. or India, he just wanted off that ship. That’s how I felt. I was ready for it to be over. … After eight years of working, going through injuries and whatever, it was a relief,” Hart said.
Johnson’s 200 world record stood for 12 years before Jamaica’s Usain Bolt bested it by running 19.30 at the Beijing Olympics. In 1999, Johnson laid down an amazing time of 43.18 to break the world record in the 400, a mark that held up for 17 years before South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk dropped a 43.03 at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
MJ added another 400 Olympic gold at the 2000 Sydney Games, capping off one of the great track and field careers of all time. Overall, he went under 20 seconds in the 200 a total of 23 times in his career, and sizzled to a sub-44 time in the 400 in 22 different races.
But nothing will ever top that Atlanta experience, in front of his own country. Even a quarter of a century later, it stands out as one of the most enduring Olympic memories in history.
“Walking back to the hotel, I didn’t care if anyone knew who I was, didn’t care if they knew I was Michael Johnson’s coach,” Hart said. “I knew what we did. We set a goal, and we accomplished that goal. I guess the word was satisfaction. Reward that we did it. Let’s go celebrate.”