x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Johnson feat gave Atlanta a facelift

Do not take my word for it; ask any athlete/coach/official/journalist/commentator to name the most wretched Olympics they have attended and I can guarantee their answer will be "Atlanta".

Do not take my word for it; ask any athlete/coach/official/journalist/commentator to name the most wretched Olympics they have attended and I can guarantee their answer will be "Atlanta". Should you be tempted to ask "And, why was that....?" steel yourself to be on the receiving end of a diatribe that could last many a long hour. Briefly, the transport arrangements were a mess; when advertising for volunteer drivers, the Games organisers decided that the two credentials required were: 1) they come from Nebraska or Alaska, anywhere in fact beyond a 1,000-mile radius of Atlanta and have no knowledge whatsoever of how to get from A to B; 2) they be totally unable to read a map or a timetable.

Chaos duly ensued. When a bus did arrive at the various ports of call - invariably to a round of ironic cheers - it would promptly drive off into the twilight zone never to be seen again. Steve Redgrave and his British rowing crew were delivered to the archery arena instead of the rowing venue, while the Kenyan track team found themselves wandering a freeway after their frazzled driver abandoned them and vehicle at the side of the road. Such slapstick tales became part of daily life in the Olympic Village.

All - well, most of it at any rate - could have been forgiven if Atlanta had offered its guests a warm welcome. But while Sydney was the land of smiles in 2000, most Georgians appeared to resent the influx of visitors. The atmosphere on the streets was decidedly un-Olympic, thick as it was with the stink of rampant commercialism and smell of burgers and hot dogs rising from the monstrous miles of fast food stalls. Actually, Atlanta '96 was 10 times worse than I have managed to convey but, hopefully, you will get an idea of the gruesome picture.

But even amid such depressing surroundings, there were moments to treasure, occasions when the heart soared and the Olympic flame burned as brightly as ever over the Centennial Stadium (now known as Turner Field and home to the Atlanta Braves baseball club). July 29 was such an evening; when the eight finalists for the men's 400m arrived on the floodlit track, the eyes of mankind were on "The Man With The Golden Shoes".

Unbeaten over the distance for seven years encompassing 54 finals and including the 1993 and 1995 World Championships, Michael Johnson's superstar status had persuaded Games organisers to alter the track and field schedule to allow him to mount an unprecedented attempt to complete the 200 and 400m double. He did not disappoint. As the other seven finalists bickered over silver and bronze - which would go to Britain's Roger Black and Davis Kamoga of Uganda - Johnson ran in a world of his own, the most elegant of runners. As thousands of flashbulbs popped, Johnson crossed the line 10m In front of Black, the longest winning margin in more than a century. Three nights later, he made history by adding the 200m title to his collection.

By the time of the first Games of the third millennium in Sydney, Johnson ("The only one who can beat me is me...") had extended his unbeaten record over 400m to 11 years. Although he had been denied the opportunity of achieving a double double when he pulled up injured in the 200m final at the US trials, Johnson's win in the one-lap final again captured the world's attention. Johnson showed himself to be a great sportsman when he returned his fifth Olympic gold (achieved in the 4 x 100 relay) when the other members of the US squad were revealed as drug cheats. "That medal is dirty, it doesn't belong to me," he said.

@Email:rphilip@thenational.ae