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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | TRACK AND FIELD

Johnson's 19.32 the Showstopper of the Games

Track and field: He lowers world record in 200 by .34 seconds as the crowd hushes to watch.

August 04, 1996|THOMAS BOSWELL | WASHINGTON POST

ATLANTA — Michael Johnson obliterated the world record in the 200 meters, claimed his long-awaited place in track history and gave what might be the most memorable virtuoso performance of the XXVI Olympiad Thursday night as he became the first man ever to win both the 200 and 400 meters in the same Games.

Johnson accelerated so suddenly in the turn that the crowd gasped. By the head of the stretch, he had passed all his rivals; for the last 100 meters he ground down all opposition, beating Frank Fredericks of Namibia by a full five yards in 19.32 seconds. Ato Boldon of Trinidad, the bronze medalist in the 100, got bronze again in the 200.

Johnson held the old world record of 19.66. Fredericks had predicted he would have to run the race of his life to beat Johnson. He did--a 19.68. It's wasn't even remotely close to being enough.

Johnson had come to these Games vowing to win two golds. For four years, he has been driven to erase the memory of his failure to win the 200 meters in Barcelona when food-poisoning ruined his chances, despite being a heavy favorite. He lost eight pounds, became severely dehydrated and flopped so shockingly that he didn't even reach the eight-man finals. Thursday night American decathlete Dan O'Brien also found the gold medal that had eluded him four years ago.

At the Olympic trials in 1992 he stunningly failed to qualify for the U.S. team, although he was a strong favorite. At those trials, O'Brien had played a mind game, attempting to show dominance over his competitors, and chose not to pole vault until the bar was at 15 feet 9 inches, passing four lower heights that his opponents conquered. He failed in three attempts, received no points for that event and remained home as his teammates left for Barcelona.

He began the second half of the decathlon today in the lead, and held on, even during the intimidating pole vault, taking the gold with 8,824 points. Frank Busemann of Germany was second with 8,706. Tomas Dvorak of the Czech Republic won the bronze medal, 8,664.

Other Americans also made their mark. Derrick Adkins won the men's 400-meter hurdles and American teammate Calvin Davis took the bronze medal.

Adkins attended nearby Georgia Tech. He built a big lead coming off the final turn and won the gold in 47.54 seconds. Samuel Matete of Zambia was second in 47.78 and Davis was third in 47.96.

But no performance was greater than that of the subdued, orderly Johnson, who is now in the company he has long sought--his hero, gentlemanly Jesse Owens.

Ironically, Johnson accomplished his feat 15 minutes after Marie-Jose Perec of France had become the second woman to pull off the same 200-400 feat in the course of one Olympics. Perec did not set an Olympic record in the 400 and a world record in the 200 (by a large margin), as Johnson did. U.S. sprinter Valerie Brisco-Hooks also won both events at the '84 Games, boycotted by Cuba, the then Soviet Union and many other countries.

"This is just incredible. I thought a 19.5 or 19.4 was possible. But a 19.3 is unbelievable. If you'd asked me before the race (if it was possible) I'd have lost all my money," said Johnson. "Still, the most important thing to me was to make history. A lot of people hold world records. Nobody else can say they won the 200 and the 400."

Should anyone wonder how many years--or decades--the 19.32 mark will stand, Johnson pointed out that he had a minor "stumble" on his fourth step and also felt a slight twinge in his hamstring about five yards from the finish. His deceleration in the last meters was visible. The world of track, which lowers dash records by a few hundredths of a second, not 34 hundredths at a time, is asking with one voice: What is this man's limit, anyway?

Usually, Olympic Stadium is an easily distracted three-ring circus kind of place that seldom achieves anything approaching silence. As Johnson and seven others took their places in the blocks, the crowd of more than 80,000 fell so silent that the starter's commands could be clearly heard 100 meters away.

The real drama lasted less than 10 seconds. All Johnson's foes admitted that they had to have the lead by the head of the stretch. By the time they got there, however, Johnson was already a chest ahead and exploding for the tape. "About 80 or 90 meters (from the tape) I felt I was in control of the race," said Johnson. "I went to my adrenalin."

Fredericks broke Johnson's 21-race winning streak in the 200 meters just 27 days ago in Oslo. Tonight, however, Johnson broke Fredericks' heart; the sober-faced American turned the best race of the Namibian's life into an Olympic trivia question: Who got smoked by two full strides by Michael Johnson to complete his double gold? "I thought it was amazing when he ran 19.66," said Fredericks. "I don't know what to say about 19.32."

Normally brash Ato Bolden, who favors wrap-around sunglasses, greeted Johnson with proper humility, giving a mock bow in front of the champion after the race.

"There's never been this much pressure on me in my whole life," said Johnson. "Every day in the papers and the magazines, every telephone call for the last six months, it was all about the double. People even called to help take the pressure off and (that) added more pressure.

"But I like pressure. I was afraid out there tonight, too. But I like to be afraid."

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