'An incredible thrill'

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Michael Johnson's problem had been that he was too predictable. Time after time, race after race, the American sprinter burst from the starting line like a Lamborghini, then loped to the finish as if operating on cruise control.

He was a great runner in a terrible rut.

Johnson raced as if intent to scratch only the surface of his speed, and to leave his limits to our imagination. He was absolutely fabulous and yet slightly frustrating, a superlative talent content to toy with his opposition when he might have been pushing the envelopeof his own potential.

No more. If Michael Johnson was saving any of his speed Thursday night, he should be declared a banned substance. He completed his unprecedented Olympic double with the mightiest 200 meters ever run. He bettered his own world record with a time of 19.32 seconds, and forever shattered his reputation for slacking off in the homestretch.

''I was taking no prisoners,'' he said. ''Nobody got the benefit of the doubt.''

No man had ever won both the 200 and 400 in the same Olympics, and no one is likely to duplicate the feat with such dominance. Three days after winning the 400 by nearly a full second, Johnson finished .36 seconds ahead of silver medalist Frankie Fredericks of Namibia.

This was an astonishing margin over such a short distance - the largest in the Olympic men's 200 meters since Jesse Owens won it in 1936. It was made all the more remarkable because Johnson improved his world record by .34 seconds, the greatest margin of improvement ever at this distance. He ran the first 100 meters in 10.12 seconds, the last in an otherworldly 9.2.

''I got a lot more than I expected,'' Johnson said. ''I can't even describe how it feels to break the world record by that much.''

Pietro Mennea's 200 record lasted 17 years before Johnson broke it at the U.S. Track and Field Trials on June 23. Now, the standard has changed twice in a span of 39 days. Johnson said he might have gone faster still had he not stumbled a little bit at the start, but he knew soon enough that he was making some amazing tracks.

''I got a good reaction and once I got out and got over the stumble, which was about my fourth step, I was running pretty fast at that point,'' he said. ''About 80-90 meters into the race I felt I was in control of the race. I felt very comfortable coming down the homestretch.

''You can always tell coming off the curve to the straightaway how you're doing, and I knew I was running faster than I'd ever run in my life. It was an incredible thrill.''

Johnson was asked how he could explain the sensation to those who could never hope to simulate his speed.

''Go get a go-cart on a hill,'' he said, ''and you'll know how it feels.''

Clyde Hart was still not sure he could comprehend it. The Baylor track coach has watched Johnson run more than any man living, but he was dumbfounded by this deed.

''Myself, I would have thought if you were going to run 19.32, your head would explode,'' he said.

Bronze medalist Ato Boldon had joked before the race that Johnson would be vulnerable in the 200 ''if he loses a shoe.'' Afterward, he was in awe.

''If someone had said earlier that Michael Johnson is going to run 19.32 in this race, I wouldn't have shown up,'' Boldon said. ''I said before that the person who wins the 100 is the fastest man alive. I think (now) that the fastest alive is sitting to my left.''

From his seat to Boldon's left, Michael Johnson did not want to debate unofficial titles. He would not be drawn into another discussion of his stature relative to that of Carl Lewis. After months of magazine covers and network hype, he was relieved just to be as good as he had been advertised.

''There's never been this much pressure on me in my entire life,'' he said. ''Every day I open a newspaper or a magazine there was something about this double. Every time I got a phone call it came up. People called to take the pressure off and they put more on.

''I was afraid I wasn't going to get this medal. I was afraid I wasn't going to make history. But for me, being afraid is OK.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Aug. 2, 1996.