This story has no climax. It contains no death, nor even one of those near brushes that quicken the heartbeat. There is no central pain nor emotional trauma around which it revolves. Intestinal bacteria, a few days of diarrhea for the central character—that's all I can promise you. I apologize and understand completely should you choose to abandon the endeavor right here.
Our character is a quiet and cool-blooded man, highly organized, very serious and extremely cautious—not the traits a dramatist would select could he load up his protagonist with features as one might a new car. Were it not for his one extravagance in life, his one audacity—his plan to stand at the center of the most widely watched spectacle on earth and do something no man has ever done—it would hardly seem worth the reader's valuable time to go further.
This plan, it should be noted, is not a long shot nor a daydream, for of all people, our character does not traffic in such things. If life simply proceeds according to logic, to pattern, to form—all old and intimate friends of his—he will emerge from the Atlanta Olympics as the first man to win gold medals in both the 200 and 400 meters at the same Games, and in the 4x400-meter relay as well. After all, he has won 54 straight finals in the 400 and has never, never, lost an outdoor final in the event. He won 21 consecutive finals in the 200. He has been ranked No. 1 in the world in both events for four years, something no other runner has done for even one year. He has won the world championship in each sprint singly (the 200 at Tokyo in 1991 and the 400 at Stuttgart in 1993) and doubly in Goteborg, Sweden, last summer. Why, just a month ago—perhaps you heard—he swept them both in the U.S. Olympic Trials and set a 200-meter world record of 19.66 seconds while going about it. "I try to remember," confesses Derek Mills, the world's third-ranked 400-meter runner, "that he's just a man."
He is a man with nothing in his personal life to distract him, nothing in his emotional makeup to undermine him; in short, there is nothing controllable that he will fail to control. He is an arrow shaved of all superfluity, feathered strictly for aerodynamics, drawn and discharged with the barest expenditure of motion, an arrow streaming nowhere except to its target.
This economy of motion and emotion, however, creates a dilemma. He is probably one of the three best sprinters of all time, but most of his countrymen barely know him. His ego demands the recognition he deserves, but his careful nature groans. Could a man become a legend . . . on his own terms? He would have to construct a plan and execute it explicitly.
So now he steps before us, in his prime at 28. All is ready. Everything's perfect. Almost as it was . . . well, yes, almost as it was on that summer evening two weeks before the '92 Olympics, as he strolled down a narrow cobblestone street in Salamanca, a lovely medieval town in Spain, freshly showered after yet another victory, on his way to fetch a burger and some fries.
Whoa. That restaurant up ahead, the one with the suckling pig surrounded by bright red chunks of lamb and beef, sausage and cured ham in the window—isn't that the very one at which Michael Johnson and his agent, Brad Hunt, had eaten the night before? What a coincidence for them to encounter it again this evening on their way to the Burger King. What a series of happenstances had brought them inside on the previous evening. If the sports reporter for the Spanish newspaper El País hadn't happened to be a classmate of Brad's at Penn, they probably never would have agreed to an interview over dinner, and if the classmate hadn't happened to bump into someone at the office who recommended El Candil. . . . Of course, Michael won't go back in there tonight. Not without the reporter, Clemson Smith Muniz, to maneuver him around all the trapdoors in the menu, all the obstacles of language with the waiters.
After all, Burger King is just across the central plaza, 200 meters away—less than 20 seconds, in Michael's case. That's where all the other runners are going. It's safe there. It's just like home. Everything in Michael's past says he will make the safe, well-reasoned choice. "He measures everything," says Brad Hunt. "I don't," says Michael, "set myself up for disappointment or embarrassment."
He is the sort of man who shops for hours for one article of clothing, peering at it from every angle in the mirror, weighing its price against that of a similar item in another mall even though he is a millionaire. Any new appointment, any alteration in his workout regimen, he promptly records in his electronic organizer, the Wizard YO-370. He keeps track of each of his investments on his home computer, and when he needs to travel overseas, he knows where to find his passport—in the "P" folder of his impeccably maintained filing cabinet. The moment he returns, he has to unpack his suitcase. "His condo looks like no one has ever lived there," says his sister Deidre in awe. "You go to hug him after he wins a big race," adds his sister Regina, "and he'll tell you, 'I'm sweaty.'"
Hours before that race, in fact, one might enter Michael's hotel room and find an intriguing still life. There would not be a wrinkle in the bedspread, not a scrap of breath-mint wrapper on top of the TV. Everything he would need for the race, and even after it, would have already been selected and arranged—uniform, socks, shoes and two gym bags here, postrace street clothes laid out over there, prerace snack on one side of the dresser top, postrace snack on the other side—all in such a way that one could not help feeling that Michael had spent the past hour shifting them from spot to spot, stepping back to survey the new arrangement until he had found the indisputably perfect one.
Everyone, to be honest, could use a friend like him. When Michael's friends have major decisions to make—on the purchase of a house, the starting of a business, the choice of a spouse—they call him. He alerts them to every conceivable pitfall, unadorns them of every emotional bias, slices through every pie in the sky as if it's lemon meringue. "I'm the ultimate realist," he says. A rare man, the world's best sprinter: He is the tortoise and the hare.
Now he stands on La Calleja—the Little Street—the air still sizzling even as the sun buries itself in the dry, vast plains that hem Salamanca, and decides whether to enter the quaint little restaurant that is a half century old. He glances at Brad. Why not? Michael is flying home to Dallas tomorrow. He has done what he came to Europe to do: He blew away a field of 200-meter runners that afternoon in Salamanca and a crop of 400-meter runners in London three days before, one last spit-and-polish before the Olympic Games open in Barcelona in a fortnight. He is as dead certain of himself now as the London bookmakers who have established him as the surest individual lock of the entire '92 Olympics. Besides, it is so damn suffocating to keep living this life he leads on race days on the road, inside this sterile cocoon with nothing but room-service food and mystery novels and little silver CD platters coursing music through earphones into his head. So damn lonely to keep entering that dark tunnel he crawls into before each race, shutting so many windows and doors on his soul that he ends up separated from friends and competitors alike, walled off from fans who have turned on televisions or bought tickets to see him run.
Just look at the customers going inside the restaurant. Neat, clean, well-to-do citizens wearing suits and ties, dresses and heels. If Michael simply reorders the same meal as last night—the mixed-grill sampler of meats and sausages that fueled this afternoon's 200-meter victory—how could he go wrong? But it's odd, as he reaches for the handle of the thick wooden door, odd that for once he doesn't hear the echo of those two words his dad uttered all Michael's years of growing up. "Watch it! Watch it!"
You see, existence is like some screwball novel, the way Paul Johnson Sr. has it figured. You either could be the author of your life, and know what is coming on the next page, or the reader, continually flummoxed. Michael enters the bar at the fore of El Candil. See? Relax. There are a host of medallions on the wall, even an international citation, confirming the restaurant's high standards. Michael knows restaurants. Back home he eats every meal out except breakfast, he so abhors the clutter of dirty dishes. That pig carcass in the window, though—you could almost see Michael's old man squinting. Of all the procedures on earth that Paul Sr. has a blueprint for, meat preparation is at the top of the list.
You see, if a man didn't do it just right—if he didn't fix his marinade the night before and arise at dawn to cook the meat halfway in the oven and cover the barbecue grill with tin foil and puncture the foil just right to allow the flame to lick the meat—if he skipped or hurried through even one of the steps, the way Michael's brother Paul Jr. did one day when he hosted a family barbecue, the old man would grumble and take over the whole show, and all you could do was get out of the way. There was a proper way to do almost everything in Paul Sr.'s house. A proper way to cut the grass—in gradually decreasing rectangles, son, not back and forth! A proper way to dust—what do you mean, skipping the top of the door just because folks can't see up there!
Before driving anywhere, Paul Sr. transferred his red toolbox from his garage to his car trunk, and he insisted on turning around despite a chorus of family groans if he forgot the toolbox, even for a 15-minute trip to church; goddawg, a chump on the side of the road without a wrench and pliers deserved every clogged carburetor he ever got. A man who wished to take his family on a summer vacation but didn't start studying maps, planning itineraries, buying nonperishables on sale, calculating mileage and gas fill-ups and picnic stops in the dead of winter, well, he was plain begging for bankruptcy and bedlam. A man who wanted to be absolutely certain that all five of his children secured college degrees and their own houses—precisely what all five of Paul Johnson Sr.'s children would end up doing—clipped out every newspaper article that chronicled the pestilence and woe that visited anyone who had failed to prepare for the future, the sinkholes waiting to swallow the ignorant, the indolent, the innocent and the idealistic.
Furthermore, Paul Sr. didn't make the classic mistake that so many other cautious fellas made. He didn't go swooning for some opposite, some sweet little impulsive thing to balance out the scales of his life. No, he found himself a nice, pragmatic, worry-wart elementary school teacher—an only child raised on a Texas farm, just like him—so that when his job as a truck driver took him away on three-day trips, he could be certain his children were still being pummeled with practicality, clobbered with common sense. "Dang," observed a friend of Regina, the eldest child in the Johnson family, "y'all always look so ironed and starched."
You see, anything might happen around the next corner, anything. Your own parents might walk onto an airplane one day, as Paul Sr.'s did when he was four, going off to take jobs as defense workers in Hawaii, and never returning. His grandmother brought him up instead, bending over backward to make sure that he didn't go gooey without a father around, and that his eyes grew kind but never wide.
Paul Sr. made sure nothing scattered his family to the wind, even when his five children reached adolescence. No weekends flipping burgers; the Johnson kids could only take jobs with a future and jobs that left their weekends free so they could be with the family. On Sunday evenings Paul Sr. would take a seat at his living-room desk, gather his children, pull out his newspaper clippings, clear his throat . . . oh boy. Sure, it would all start innocently enough. "Let me ask y'all something," he might say, tilting back in his squeaky swivel chair. "I want your opinion about this fella I read about the other day." Then, leaning back so far in the chair the kids held their breath—was he going to fall flat on his back right in the middle of his morality tale?—he would read the article, perhaps one about a man who had lost his house because he had failed to read the fine print in his mortgage contract. Suddenly he would swivel toward one of the children, maybe the youngest, 11-year-old Michael, and ask, "Do you see where this fella made his mistake? Do you understand the importance of understanding every part of a contract you sign and always keeping a copy of it filed so you can refer to it? Do you plan to own a house one day?"
"Uh, yes, sir."
"How do you plan to make enough money to afford a house?"
"Uh, well, get a good job. I want to be an architect."
"An architect, hmmm? Are you willing to make the sacrifice it will take to accomplish that? How do you plan to get into college, Michael? What if you don't get a scholarship? I see. And what if you don't get into architecture school? What's your fall-back plan? Hmmm. How much money does a starting architect make? How much would you need to put away a month to save the money you need to buy a house? Do you think that's enough? [Pulling out a pad and pencil.] Well, let's figure it out. Here's how much you would have saved in 10 years at that rate. Is that enough? Are you sure? What about homeowner's insurance? Did you figure that in?"
All five children absorbed it, but Michael devoured it. The others were a little afraid of going near The Desk, but when everyone was gone and the house was silent, Michael would slide up to it in the squeaky swivel chair and run his hands across it, feeling the power radiating from the stacks of bills and budgets, reminders and plans. Michael wanted things his middle-class family couldn't afford. A fast car, a beautiful house, a walk-in closet full of clothes. So he set to work, sealing off all the seams in his plan, making certain he wouldn't end up like one of those poor saps Dad scissored out of the Dallas Times Herald.
Neatness and organization were essential, of course. Michael flawlessly governed his side of the bedroom that he and Paul Jr. shared, but the cosmetics and brushes that his sister Deidre kept leaving on the bathroom counter so unsettled him that he placed them in a shoebox each morning and deposited it on her bed, until at last she surrendered to his will. Just before his sophomore year at Skyline High School in Dallas, he went to the mall and shopped alone for hours, searching for the brown briefcase that would fulfill all the necessary functions and look just right with the glasses, pressed shirt and necktie he chose to wear every day to school. Each school year after that, he had to have a new brown briefcase.
Little mistakes mortified him. "I'm very conscious," he says, "of how I'm perceived." His siblings saw that early and started cashing it in, setting him up one afternoon when he was five by telling him it was their father's birthday. "Happy birthday, Dad!" little Michael blurted at dinner, and when everyone burst into laughter, he burst into tears. When he entered high school, he took the wrong bus home from orientation day and remained lost for hours rather than ask anyone for help. Michael Johnson was not going to be the butt of anyone's joke, the example for anyone's Sunday-evening family meeting.
Track? He was always the fastest kid of his age in his neighborhood, but so what? "Track didn't matter one way or the other with us," says Michael's mother, Ruby. "Education was everything," says his father. "He just happened to run well, according to time."
He didn't even go out for track his freshman year in high school, then long-jumped most of his sophomore year. As a junior he began winning 200s but was left in the shade of local rival Roy Martin, the nation's fastest schoolboy. His senior year another local rival, Derrick Florence, beat him when it counted most. Michael ran oddly, college recruiters noted. His legs from knee to ankle were short for a 6'1" man, and so he lacked the high-knee pistoning and long stride of classic sprinters. He held his torso and head extraordinarily erect, his elbows tight to his body. His feet seemed to barely lift off the ground. To lean, to pump like mad, well, that wasn't Michael. But Baylor coach Clyde Hart saw something that the others didn't. Michael got his scholarship.
His most remarkable quality wasn't one that would catch the eye of a coach dropping by to take in an invitational or a state final. It was his capacity to focus, to establish a plan and relentlessly pursue it. Nobody worked as hard in practice. Nobody was as serious. "He can be happy, playing pool, jiving, and all of a sudden, without announcing it, he goes into a quiet zone," says a friend, hurdler McClinton Neal. "If you don't know him, you'd think he was angry, but he's just thinking about what he needs to do. He's planning, and he wants to be left alone. He can't be persuaded to be a certain way. He'll be himself from beginning to end."
In his first outdoor 200 at Baylor he lost to Floyd Heard, the fastest 200-meter sprinter in the world at the time, by .1 of a second. Hello. He would still get good grades, still hand in papers before they were due, but he began to see a different path to the fine things he wanted. During his sophomore year, at the 1988 Drake Relays, he blistered a 43.4 anchor leg in the 4x400, prompting then U.S. Olympic track coach Stan Huntsman to say that he would take that lap, right now, as his anchor lap a few months later in the Summer Games in Seoul.
Funny, though. Each year his father's warnings about life would re-prove themselves. He pulled a hamstring during his freshman year and missed the NCAA championships. As a sophomore, a few weeks after the Drake Relays, he was leading in the NCAA 200 final when his fibula broke, dooming his chances for Seoul. His junior year he strained a hamstring at the Southwestern Conference meet and missed the NCAAs.
He was a virtual unknown when he landed in Budapest to join the European track circuit the summer before his senior year of college. He watched all the agents and reporters and promoters flutter around the big names. "Next year," he vowed to a friend, "they'll know who I am." To his sister Regina he confided, "I am going to do things that have never been done."
His hunger, in the beginning, was not strictly metaphoric. His stash of candy bars depleted, Michael couldn't bring himself to enter a restaurant his first day and a half in Europe. Watch it! Watch it! Who knew how they handled the food in a faraway country? Who knew what microbes might have found their way into the meat?
But now three years on the circuit are behind him. It is a man of the world who is striding into El Candil, taking a seat at one of the wooden tables overlaid with red-and-white tablecloths. The owner, short and broad as a barrel of red wine from the cellar, beams when he sees that the great American sprinter has come a second night. ¿La mezcla, otra vez, señor? The mixture of grilled and smoked meats again? Excelente, señor. Nuestra especialidad.
It's a lovely meal. There is so much to feel fine about. Not one gold medal on the horizon but two, now that the attempt by American 400-meter runners to freeze Michael out of the U.S. 4x400 relay team in Barcelona has fizzled. All he had to do was stand up when the relay team met during a training camp in Switzerland a few weeks earlier, back when the other relay members were muttering about boycotting if Michael was included, because he hadn't run the 400 at the Olympic trials. Stand up and say, "I don't understand what this is all about. No one in this room has ever beaten me at 400 meters." Case closed. Now the world would see how swiftly he could run both the 200 and the 400. Now it might recognize that he had replaced Carl Lewis as The Man.
The sprinter and his agent leave El Candil full and happy, making plans to meet in the morning for the two-hour ride to the airport in Madrid. At 2 a.m. Brad lurches out of bed in a cold sweat. He spends the rest of the night reeling between the bed and the toilet. "Really?" says Michael in the morning. "I feel fine."
It hits him when they reach the airport. It had to have been the meal at El Candil, the two of them figure. But the proprietor there will always insist that it couldn't have been. The sickness comes in waves for nine long hours while Michael is in the air. His brother meets him at the airport. "Take me to Mom," Michael groans.
He crawls into bed. He tells his parents there is no need for watch-its! or what-abouts?, no need to see a doctor. Surely by tomorrow this will pass.
Tomorrow comes, then another tomorrow. Each time he feels sure he is over it, the rumble returns to his stomach. He's three pounds lighter . . . five pounds . . . eight pounds—how can a man with virtually no body fat lose that weight and still outrun the fastest runners in the world?
But there is no need to panic. After all, his focus, more than his body, is what separates him from the pack. His focus hasn't been food-poisoned. Isn't he the man who crawls so far inside of himself on the days when he trains alone at SMU that, as far as he is concerned, everything but his track workout ceases to exist? Isn't he the one who amazed his coach by running repeat 200s on a day when it was raining so hard in Waco that you couldn't see your hand if you stuck it out the window? "Might have to run a final in the rain some day," he told Hart. Hasn't he tortured himself with a regimen of weightlifting and stretching that put an end to all the leg injuries that crippled his college career? Hasn't he thought and spoken these words like a mantra: "All I have to have is a goal. That's all I need."
He will simply go back to Waco, where he keeps an apartment and trains on Baylor's track under Hart at least three days each week, and reapply his monstrous will to the task. Go back to running those relentless series of 300s and 350s, reaching the orange traffic cones set up every 50 meters at the exact instant when the synchronized sideline horn sounds so that his pace is mercilessly uniform. Back to counting the blinks on his digital watch so his rest interval between 350s never varies from Hart's instructions. Back to the tape measure he uses to make sure his left starting block is precisely 24 inches behind the starting line and his right one 42 1/2 inches behind the line, rather than approximating the distance with his feet the way others do. Back to the assembly line groove that mass-produces those sub-20-second 200s and sub-44-second 400s all summer long. His goal will save him.
UCLA track assistant coach John Smith: "It's a battlefield for Michael Johnson. He's going to war. Figure it out. If you miss one workout a week during the season, that's 22 a year. Multiply that by five years, that's 110 workouts, or three months of training. Michael Johnson never misses a day. Michael Johnson is three months ahead of his competitors."
But something's wrong, even after his intestines stop boiling. The weight loss has sapped him of strength in his last week of workouts in the U.S. An awareness of this floats through the fringe of his brain only in fuzzy, half-formed thoughts, because the factory of his mind has been so will-whipped to pump out the normal thoughts: This is mine. I own the 200. No one can take it from me. He flies to Barcelona. He won't play cards or dominoes with the other runners. He never does. He'll socialize with a few of them now and then, but he never blurs business with friendship. He has fired a pair of cleaning ladies and several business associates. "I'd be scared to work for Michael Johnson if I wasn't very confident of my abilities," says Kristen Barker, a friend since their days on the Baylor track team. "He's a very warm and caring person with his friends, but there are no feelings attached when it comes to business."
Let the other runners read arrogance into those cool eyes, that perfectly clipped mustache and deep voice. "They take him the wrong way," says Gwen Torrence, the U.S. women's 100-meter champion. "I argue with people on the circuit all the time about him. People don't know how to approach him because he doesn't smile. He doesn't need gratification from the outside. Those are the ingredients of a champion."
"Most people tend to think that there's something that I'm not giving them," says Michael. "There isn't. If I'm not exciting to everyone else, so be it. I excite myself. That's all that matters to me. There are no secrets to hide, no skeletons in the closet. It's just the way I am. I don't trust easily. Because I've always been so close to my family, I knew I could rely upon them. So I didn't really go out and trust other people. It may have caused me to miss out on some opportunities. But it's much safer for me. I'd rather be safe than to trust someone and they end up turning on me."
It's time to run his first Olympic heat in Barcelona. It's time for America to discover what track connoisseurs have been marveling over for three years. His preparation is the same as always. He empties his music case of the R&B and jazz that he normally listens to, and loads it front to end with gangsta rap. It may not harmonize with the briefcase, electronic organizer and pressed pants, but it's perfect chamber music for the dark cubicle he is padlocking himself inside. "The Danger Zone," he calls it. He walks by friends at the stadium without a glance. He finds a piece of territory away from the others to stretch and jog. He stares into his forearm, into the ground, into space—anywhere but into human eyes. The others make small talk or pace or chew gum or dip their shoulders to their headphone music or offer "good luck" to their competitors. None of that for Michael. None of it. "At this point," he'll admit, "I hate them. Those seven guys are trying to take something away from me. It's automatic for me. I don't have to build it up. That's the difference between me and them."
"No one on the circuit knows his fears and insecurities, and he keeps it that way," says Neal. "Many of his opponents lose to him before they get on the track. He always looks like he's going to run fast. He exudes total confidence. He never lets them see him sweat."
That's it. None of the other runners in Barcelona knows about the meal in the Salamanca restaurant or what it has done to Michael. They don't expect to beat him. He will conquer them now, in this lonely hour before the starting gun cracks, by maintaining that aura, that airtight capsule of invulnerability. Hadn't he found himself, after running in a slow heat, all the way out in lane 8 for the Olympic trials 200-meter final just a month earlier? The loneliest lane, with everyone staggered behind him, with no one to run against but himself. Hadn't he entered the Danger Zone earlier and deeper than ever for that final, becoming so ferociously cold and far away the night before that even his agent and brother got the heebie-jeebies? He blitzed through the fastest 200 of his life the next day, went back to his hotel room and let out what the world never heard or saw. "I MADE IT!" he had shouted, leaping up and down on his bed with his brother. "I'M GOING TO THE OLYMPICS!"
He coils into the starting blocks. He goes out with the bang. "There's chaos at the beginning of a race," he says. "I try to bring order to it." He tidies up his first-round heat in 20.80 seconds. What no one but Michael knows is that it takes everything he has. He places second in his second-round heat in 20.55. Smart, his competitors think, just easing in—but he's turning away so they don't see him gulping for air!
He returns to his hotel room. He loves pressure, the tension of having to produce, the chance to confirm the extent of his control. He'll take a friend's Ferrari up to 180, and he's hell on water with a Jet Ski. But on one condition: no surprises. The first time he will agree to attempt the 200-400 double, for nearly $100,000 at a 1994 meet in Madrid, he'll plot exactly how much time he needs between the two events—enough so he can recover, but not too much or he'll stiffen. When the Spanish, being the Spanish, are late starting the first event, he'll say the hell with them and refuse to do it. But this is the Olympics. All his planning has gone awry, and there's nothing he can do but go through with it.
He steps onto the track for the last round before the finals. "Feeling something I'd never felt before a race," he says. "Feeling helpless." The gun sounds. He's still in position to win at 100 meters . . . and then . . . everything . . . slows . . . down . . . and . . . Michael's sitting lost for hours on the wrong bus in Dallas . . . nailed to the living room floor without an answer or a plan under the cocked eye of his father . . . in front of the whole world. The people he has been leaving in the dust for three years surge past him. Eleven competitors in the semifinal round run faster than his 20.78. He does not qualify for the final.
He fixes his face in stone so no one can see what is whirling inside him. "I wasn't surprised," he will say later. "I had prepared myself for this." He walks to the press conference, says all the correct things, tells the world the sun will rise tomorrow and so will Michael Johnson. Then he walks outside the stadium, sags onto the curb and feels the tears streaming down his cheeks.
This is where our character should spin out of control, where the iron will, snapped by fate, should scatter in jagged fragments. But you were warned at the outset, remember? Here is where love acts as the enemy of drama, as a parachute for the man in free fall. His father, mother, brother and two sisters are waiting at the hotel to hug him that day. "We love you, Son" are the first words from Paul Sr.'s mouth. The father and son go out onto the balcony alone. The father has no questions this time. The son no answers. He just stares across the Barcelona twilight and cries once more.
He wants to go back home the next day. He's leaking invulnerability in a very public place. He cannot bear the prospect of the three other runners on the 4x400 relay team—some of them the very ones whose grumbles he had to stare down—having to carry him now. But Hart talks him out of it. A weak Michael Johnson, Hart insists, is still one of the four fastest 400 runners in the world.
Enough, just enough, he is able to bend—the truest sign of strength—to this new reality. He swallows his pride, stays for the relay, and even though his leg is the team's slowest, the U.S. foursome sets a world record. Then he leaves the track circuit and goes back to Dallas, back to church each Sunday with his family. The pain of his defeat, the anger at a universe in which a man can lose the opportunity of a lifetime simply by walking through a restaurant door, the self-flagellation for not going to a doctor for medication to stanch the loss of fluids, it all remains contained and slowly cools into an ingot. A new goal. A new plan. That's all I need. A goal to blow away the competition in '93, to show that Barcelona was an aberration.
"My dad was even worried I'd do something crazy that night in Barcelona," he says. "But I've always seen track as a job that I love—it's not who I am. I'd had so much success up to that point, I'd already proved I was the best."
So swiftly does he reestablish the proper order in 1993, and so regularly does he prove his dominance, that he begins to wonder why he should be satisfied with winning one event—either the 200 or the 400—and watching someone else win the other. The idea of doubling grows inside him. It runs into the teeth of conventional track wisdom, which has always considered the 200 a speed event and the 400 more a test of power and endurance, requiring a different training program. And into the teeth of track history, which has seen no man achieve the 200-400 double in a meet of any significance since America's Maxie Long at the U.S. Championships in 1899. And into the teeth of the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), track and field's governing body, which must be persuaded to alter its Olympic timetable in Atlanta so he can run in both events.
He plots two major dress rehearsals. Before the first one—the U.S. nationals in June 1995—he listens as his agent tells him that no matter how magnificent the quest, its appeal to fans and corporate sponsors will remain tepid if all the world ever sees of him is that cold look in his eyes. Michael is a man who majored in marketing, one who cannot live with the thought that he is not maximizing his opportunities, and he knows that what his agent says is true. But it's just not natural for the arrow to shimmy. As he's crossing the finish line in the 400 final at the nationals, he turns toward the crowd and throws up his arms. He fails to smile, though, and the effect is leaden, interpreted by his competitors as gloating. He wins the double, and two months later his attempt to do it at the world championships in Goteborg becomes the centerpiece of the competition. "The world championships, it's boring," says Lewis, who is sitting out the meet with a strained hamstring. "The electricity is not there. There's no buzz. The one American they are trying to build up is Michael Johnson, and he's not doing anything for them. I guarantee that if I was in the 100 meters, it would have been sold out."
The cautious man and the flamboyant one have always seemed to rub each other wrong. Perhaps it all began near the end of Michael's college career, when he spurned an approach by the Santa Monica Track Club, the team of elite trackmen led by Lewis. Or maybe Carl, who has won once in six 200-meter confrontations with Michael, just isn't quite ready to pass on the mantle of The Man. "There is nothing that meshes between these two men, except that they both run fast," say Brad Hunt. Michael says, "There is absolutely no personal relationship with me and Carl."
Michael wins both races in Goteborg—unprecedented at the world championships—and comes within an eye blink of two world records. What is it, besides his phenomenal focus, that enables him to straddle two events in which other gifted runners would never consider doubling? It turns out that it's his running style, the one that once made college recruiters so uneasy. Ralph Mann, a biomechanical expert and former Olympic 400-meter hurdler, has formulated a model for the ideal 200, which reveals that rapidity of stride turnover is more important than stride length, and that Michael's skimming stride is the most efficient in the world. "Because his style doesn't use up as much energy, he can sprint at the end," says Hart. "He is the only one who can keep his stride for an entire 400 because he runs so relaxed. Throw all the other models away for sprinting. Michael is the model."