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The golden spikes

Laura Williamson Of The Daily Mail
Saturday, January 18, 2014

You have to be good — special, in fact — to get away with wearing gold spikes. But Michael Johnson was even better than special; he was one of the greatest Olympians and athletes of all time.

Consider this: since Johnson set his outdoor 400 metres world record of 43.18secs to win gold at the World Championships in Seville in 1999, only three other men have broken the 44-second barrier.

Johnson, however, did it 22 times during his illustrious career — more than double the amount of any other athlete.

At his home Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, despite the cauldron of expectation, those gold spikes carried him to an unprecedented 200m and 400m double, and a new world record of 19.32secs over the shorter sprint.

Johnson took more than three tenths of a second off his previous mark on August 1, 1996 in a performance so startling, so Beamon-esque, that even he allowed himself an uncharacteristic leap of celebration at the end.

It remains the fourth-fastest 200m race in history, and was a record that looked set to stand for decades — until the emergence of a certain Usain Bolt, of course.

Johnson and Bolt could hardly be less similar in their approach, physical attributes or style, but they share that rare, precious talent of having pushed their sport beyond the realms of what we thought humanly possible.

To watch Johnson in his prime was to be filled with awe. While his performances did not come over the straight sprint of a 100m race — traditionally the domain of the world's fastest man — seeing him own the bends of a running track only made his displays and dominance even more majestic.

It was awesome, in the proper sense of the word, because it did not seem to make sense, either.

Johnson's upper body, with a thick gold chain around a powerfully built neck, always seemed too built up for a 400m sprinter.

You would never find his rigid, upright stance, low knee lift and piston-like arm movement in any coaching manual.

He seemed to lose momentum by almost waddling from side to side in his lane, yet inevitably came out of the final bend ahead, like a wind-up toy that had just been let go.

It never looked easy from afar, yet a close-up of his face would usually show complete relaxation.

Johnson knew he was going to win: it was just a matter of executing the perfect race to see how fast his body could go.

Johnson's self-belief was unimpeachable, yet he — just ­— managed to navigate that difficult line between arrogance and confidence.

It made him one of track and field's first global superstars, albeit somewhat reluctantly; an athlete who finally earned what their performances deserved and opened the door for others to claim financial rewards from their sport, too.

That distinctive, deep drawl and his outspoken views have also made him a well-respected television pundit.

Yet, despite the advertising campaigns and the celebrity dividends, Johnson's mental strength also allowed him to remain fixed on his ultimate goals: winning gold and breaking records.

A relentless perfectionist, pressure seemed like an anathema to Johnson.

It is "nothing more than the shadow of great opportunity", he once said.

It did not all come overnight for the youngest of five children from Texas, however. He suffered a stress fracture before the 1998 Olympic Games in Seoul and then food poisoning before the 1992 Games, in which he failed to make the final of the 200m, although he did recover to win gold in the 4x400m relay.

"I was in danger of finishing my career as the greatest athlete ever at 200m and 400m, world-record holder — but without winning an (individual) Olympic gold medal," he said.

But if sporting greatness is partly measured by longevity, by the ability to come back and do it again, then Johnson certainly succeeded.

He was a few weeks shy of his 33rd birthday by the time he won his final Olympic 400m gold in Sydney in 2000.

Overall, Johnson achieved eight world titles over 200m, 400m and in the 4x400m, and four Olympic titles.

He also gave back a fifth Olympic gold, for the 4x400m relay in 2000, after team-mate Antonio Pettigrew admitted using performance-enhancing drugs at the time of the Sydney Games.

Johnson said it was "tainted" and that he felt "cheated, betrayed and let down".

His action was admirable, but there is still sadness in his voice whenever he talks about it.

He tends to fall back on a well-used line.

"It was completely unnecessary," he says of Pettigrew's involvement.

"We (the USA team) were so far ahead we could have had you on the team and we would still have won."

Jerome Young, who ran in the heats and semi-finals, and both Harrison twins — Alvin and Calvin — who represented the US in the final, also went on to fail drugs tests.

Only Johnson's record remains untainted. But then, the Man in the Golden Shoes was always that little bit extra special, wasn't he?

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