At the '96 Atlanta Games, Michael Johnson blows past the world record in the 200 with an incredible 19.32.
By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 9, 1999
For 17 years, Italian Pietro Mennea's record of 19.72 seconds had been unchallenged. It was track's version of Roger Maris' 61 home runs.
Then, in the relative blink of an eye, Michael Johnson broke it -- twice. He clocked 19.66 seconds at the U.S. Olympic trials in June, and on Aug. 1, 1996, with the world as his stage, he surpassed his mark with the incredible time of 19.32.
How big a deal is that? In a sport in which hundredths of a second can be the difference between victory and defeat, Johnson obliterated the record by a third of a second.
Johnson was asked to describe what he had just done. "I can't," he said. "I thought I could run a 19.5 or a 19.4. But a 19.3?"
That's like, well, like Mark McGwire blowing past Maris with 70 home runs, like Bob Beamon breaking the world long-jump record, usually measured in fractions of an inch, by nearly 2 feet.
"It's hard to compare this," U.S. track coach Erv Hunt said. "Is there anything better that's ever been done in sports? I think it's the greatest feat I've ever seen."
Frankie Fredericks was second in 19.68 seconds. That's like Twice a Prince finishing 31 lengths behind Secretariat in the '73 Belmont Stakes. "I thought a 19.66 was unbelievable," Fredericks said. "This may stand as long as Mennea's (record). I don't think we can get close to it."
Three days earlier, Johnson had won the first of his two Atlanta gold medals with an Olympic-record time of 43.49 seconds in the 400 meters, a mere prelude to the shorter race.
The gold-medal, world-record performance in the 200 culminated Johnson's four-year odyssey from the Barcelona Olympics, when he chose to pass on the 400 to concentrate on the 200 only to get food poisoning and suffer elimination in a 200 qualifying heat.
"This makes up for '92," Johnson said. "It's been worth the wait, worth the work, worth the four years it's taken me to get another chance."
As the Atlanta Games approached, Johnson received increasingly suffocating attention, from his golden running shoes ("I liked the color. I made my shoes gold, hoping it would bring good luck. I guess it worked.") to his standing-at-attention running style to his insistence that the Games should be his showcase.
"I have never felt pressure like this in my life," Johnson said. "Every time I opened a newspaper or magazine, there was something about the double. I was scared out there, and I run well when I am scared."
-- Information from Times files was used in this report.