Michael Johnson was already accustomed to achieving the seemingly impossible by the time he arrived at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. This was an athlete whose running style was utterly unique, contradicting the conventional wisdom of the coaching manuals. Before the Texan arrived on the scene, world-class sprinters had been told to lean forward into their stride and lift their knees high.
Johnson ran bolt upright, with swinging arms and rapid pitter-patter steps - and achieved astounding results. Never before had an athlete possessed the blistering speed and muscular endurance to win at 200m and 400m. Yet Johnson completed the double at the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg, running sub-20secs in the 200m and under 44secss in the 400. It was hardly surprising that the media dubbed him "Superman", although the athlete himself always seemed unfazed following each of his remarkable feats.
After breaking Pietro Mennea's 200m world record - the most stubborn and resistant mark in track and field - at the 1996 US Olympic trials, he said nonchalantly: "I wasn't shocked - I knew if I focused on the 200m I could probably break the record and break it significantly." This cool diffidence was shattered on August 1, 1996, when Johnson produced an astounding, career-defining performance to win the Olympic 200m.
As he crossed the line, he flung his arms wide and his eyes were alight, revealing a passion he'd rarely shown before. He then glanced over at the trackside clock and was so taken aback that he let out a loud scream and slumped to the floor on all fours. The digital display read 19.32, which meant Johnson had smashed his own world record by such a margin that it was akin to Bob Beamon lowering the long jump record by two metres back in 1968.
The bronze medallist, Ato Boldon, was so startled that he thought it insufficient to shake hands with Johnson, instead choosing to bow before his vanquisher. "I can't describe what it feels like to break the record by that much," Johnson said afterwards in his deep-chested Texan drawl. "I thought 19.5 was possible, but 19.3 is unbelievable." Johnson had arrived in Atlanta on unfinished business. Four years earlier, he had been hot favourite for the 200m in Barcelona, but a piece of spoiled ham had wrecked his chances.
After missing a week of training and losing 10lb because of food poisoning, he failed to even qualify for the final, let alone win a medal. The 28-year-old was desperate to make amends with an historic 200m and 400m double in front of US fans in Atlanta. There were suggestions that this pressure might be getting to him after he was beaten in a 200m for the first time in 22 races by Frankie Fredericks of Namibia in Oslo on July 5.
It was the first time he had been beaten when fit and healthy and he vowed to "go home, train hard and come back to win in Atlanta". The first leg of his double bid was completed in spectacular fashion on July 29, when he won the 400m with a devastating time of 43.49, leaving silver medallist Roger Black trailing by almost a second. Three days later, Johnson was back for the final of the 200m, his eighth race in just seven days.
He was drawn in lane three, two outside his chief rival for the gold, Fredericks. Wearing his trademark gold spikes, Johnson stumbled slightly at the start, before recovering and making up the stagger on Cuba's Ivan Garcia in lane four. As he shot out of the curve, the American had a slight lead on Fredericks, which stretched inexorably down the home straight. "It was the biggest challenge of my life and I am very proud I was able to pull it off," the 28-year-old said emotionally afterwards.
His achievement made him an Olympic legend who could rank alongside the likes of Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis. Long after the race had finished, Boldon was still stunned by his rival's performance, despite having had time to digest what he had seen. "19.32," the Trinidadian laughed in bewilderment, "that's not a time, that's my dad's birthday." firstname.lastname@example.org