Johnson runs far ahead of the field

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Michael Johnson runs with a short stride and a long shadow. His feet touch the ground in a furious series of mincing steps, like a running back doing the tire drill, as if the track were on fire.

His is a choppy, upright running style contrary to nearly everything the classic dash man is supposed to do. Except for this: Johnson is almost always the fellow in front.

America's unorthodox sprint champion extended his unbeaten streak to 53 straight 400-meter finals in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials Wednesday night. Johnson ran the fastest 400 ever clocked on American soil and did it so imperfectly that he later lamented that he had muffed a world record through untimely mistakes.

No other quarter-miler could have quibbled with a 43.44-second 400. No one else in the world can touch that time at the moment

''I know right now that I can run 43 flat,'' Johnson said at the Centennial Olympic Stadium. ''I feel very confident about that. Today was an opportunity to do it. The conditions were perfect. It's nobody's fault but mine that I didn't break the world record.''

Something to shoot for

Johnson believes he missed Butch Reynolds' 1988 world mark of 43.29 because of a failure to spring swiftly enough from the starting blocks. If it were so, it was not a grievous fault, for Johnson dominated the race from the start until the last few strides.

It was then that exhaustion set in and the record was lost. Michael Johnson crossed the finish line with comparatively feeble steps. (''That was just my body saying, 'I'm done,' '' he said.) Still, runner-up Reynolds would finish two full strides and nearly half a second behind.

''My coach instructed me to get out hard and settle into it, and I didn't do that,'' Johnson said. ''I think it caused me to tire a little bit (at the end).''

Perhaps it was better that way. Michael Johnson ought to have some goal worth shooting for in the Olympics. Barring injury, the gold medal would seem guaranteed.

''The reality is there are probably three guys walking the Earth that can beat Michael,'' Trinidad sprinter Ato Bolden said this week, ''and none of them can beat him in the 400.''

Johnson has grown so intimidating at this distance that promoters of a July meet in London are trying to rescind his invitation for fear he might traumatize the British quarter-milers.

''They felt that it would be a bit demoralizing running against Michael at that late stage of their preparation,'' said British Athletic Federation spokesman Tony Ward.

Johnson's stature in the sprints is such that track officials agreed to rearrange the Olympic schedule so that he might have enough time between races to pursue an unprecedented men's 200 - 400 double. Johnson's winning streak in the 200 outdoors stands at 20 straight.

''Right now, Michael doesn't feel like he can be beat,'' said Clyde Hart, Johnson's coach. ''People who talk about beating him, that's like a guy whistling in the graveyard. . . . If I were running against Michael Johnson, I would want to sneak in with a big stick and try to do it in the dark.''

Foes tired of shadows

It may come to that. Many distinguished quarter-milers have spent their entire career in Johnson's wake, and the scenery tends to get tiresome.

''It's a love-hate thing,'' Butch Reynolds said Wednesday. ''This is a competitive sport. The love comes in because we know this is just a short part of life. But he's the only guy who can beat me in the world. That's my hate part. I'm tired of taking second.''

Not since 1989 has another man beaten Michael Johnson over 400 meters. A month before the Olympics, most rational runners would gladly settle for a silver medal.

''It's very frustrating for many of them,'' Johnson said. ''In my six years as a professional, some runners' careers have started and ended without them beating me. I'm sure some of my competitors hate me for that, but I think everybody respects me.''

If they don't, they're pretty dumb.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published June 20, 1996.