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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | TRACK AND FIELD

Johnson Turns Back Clock in 200, and Suddenly It's the 19.32 Games

August 02, 1996|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Tired of waiting for Carl Lewis to pass track and field's torch to him, Michael Johnson took it and ran Thursday night, ran faster in the 200 meters than any other man ever has before.

While controversy raged around the decision about whether Lewis should run the 400-meter relay final Saturday on the Summer Olympics' final weekend, it took only 19.32 seconds for Johnson to return the focus, for at least one night, to the athletes on the track in Centennial Olympic Stadium. Or at least one athlete: Michael Johnson.

There are many adjectives that could be used to describe the Texan's performance. Awesome is as close as any. Not only did he achieve something that had never been done before by a man in the Olympics, add the gold medal in the 200 to the one he won Monday in the 400, he did it while chasing the record of the fastest 200 runner to ever live: Michael Johnson.

The time, 19.32, also demands repeating.

On the same track in this summer's U.S. Olympic trials, he broke the sport's oldest individual world record, Italian Pietro Mennea's 19.72 set 16 years before, by six-hundredths of a second, running 19.66.

Five weeks later, Johnson has eclipsed that, by more than three-tenths of a second. No one has ever broken a 200 record by anything close to that. Mennea's record was considered phenomenal, and he beat the previous record held by Tommie Smith by only four-hundredths.

Erv Hunt, U.S. track and field coach, was momentarily speechless.

"I have no idea of what event to compare it to," he said, after regaining his composure. "I think it's one of the finest accomplishments in all sports."

The greatest compliment came from Ato Boldon, the UCLA senior who represents Trinidad & Tobago. He finished third in 19.80, earning his second bronze medal in a race won in a world-record breaking time. Canada's Donovan Bailey won the other, the 100 meters Saturday, in 9.84.

If it were possible for Johnson to run both halves of his race Thursday night in the same time, he would have run the first and last 100s in 9.66. Officially, he was timed in 10.12 for the first 100 and 9.20 for the second.

"I said the man who wins the 100 is the fastest man alive," Boldon said at a post-race press conference in a packed room underneath the stadium. "I think the fastest man alive is sitting to my left."

Immediately after the race, Boldon approached Johnson and bowed to him.

When Johnson crossed the finish line, he was more than six feet ahead of Namibia's Frankie Fredericks, the 100-meter silver medalist, who ran the 200 in the third-fastest time ever, 19.68. Still, no second-place finisher in the Olympic 200 final has ever been so far behind.

Johnson looked at the clock five meters beyond the finish line, registered his time and screamed at the top of his lungs. He could not be heard over the crowd of 82,884, which also celebrated two other U.S. gold medals Thursday night.

Derrick Adkins, a New Yorker treated as a hometown hero because he graduated from Georgia Tech, won the 400-meter intermediate hurdles in 47.54, ahead of Zambia's Samuel Matete in 47.78. Calvin Davis, who made the team in the trials in only the seventh hurdles race of his life, finished third in 47.96.

Three-time world champion Dan O'Brien of Moscow, Idaho, persevered in the two-day, 10-event decathlon title by 118 points over Germany's Frank Busemann, then was proclaimed as the world's greatest athlete.

Not on this night.

If there was anyone who could even claim to be a challenger to Johnson for that title, it was France's Marie-Jose Perec. Like Johnson, the woman who has trained in Westwood for the last three years to escape her Michael Jordan-like status in France, completed a 400-200 double by winning the latter in 22.12. Jamaica's Merlene Ottey, also second in the 100, won the silver medal in 22.24.

But if Perec did not receive acclaim similar to that accorded Johnson, it was because her double was not unprecedented by a woman. The United States' Valerie Brisco did it in 1984. Also, Perec did not approach a world record, falling far short of the 21.34 run by Florence Griffith Joyner to win the gold medal in Seoul eight years ago.

No one has dominated a sprint like Johnson since Flo-Jo, who still has the 100 world record that she set in 1988 as well.

"I can't even describe how it feels to break the world record by that much," said Johnson, 28, of Dallas. "I always thought 19.7 or 19.6 was possible, but 19.3? That's unbelievable."

Johnson was even more bewildered because he had another poor start, the weakest part of his 200. It is an aspect that he does not have to concern himself with as much in the 400, which he won here Monday night by the largest margin in the Olympics since 1896, but failed to set a world record.

That was Johnson's 55th consecutive victory in a 400 final. His streak was at 21 in the 200 early last month, when he was left in the blocks in Oslo and finished second to Fredericks.

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