Bolt chases the Holy Grail: Michael Johnson's record in the 200 meters
BEIJING -- It remains the most arresting track and field moment I have ever witnessed live.
Better than either of Usain Bolt's world records this year. Better than Jonathan Edwards' 60-foot triple jump at Göteborg, Sweden, at the 1995 worlds. Better than Haile Gabrselassie holding off Paul Tergat to the win the 10,000 meters at the Sydney Olympics. Better than the 800-meter Oregon sweep at the Olympic trials at Eugene's Hayward Field two months ago.
And don't get me wrong: Those things -- and many others -- were breathtaking and memorable.
None of them resonates like Michael Johnson's 200-meter gold medal and generation-skipping world record of 19.32 seconds on the night of Aug. 1, 1996, at the Atlanta Olympic Games.
The gold medal came on top of Johnson's 400-meter victory, fulfilling a double-gold quest he had undertaken not long after food poisoning sabotaged his '92 Olympics. It came after Johnson had chased Pietro Mennea's 17-year-old world record of 19.72 seconds and finally taken it down with a 19.66 at the '96 Olympic trials.
The entire experience was surreal. Johnson wobbled a step from the blocks, ripped through the turn marginally in front of the very dangerous Frankie Fredericks of Namibia and Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago and then exploded in the stretch. As always, spectators watched Johnson blast through the line and then turned back to the clock, which froze 19.32. Not since Bob Beamon jumped 8.90 in 1968 has a time looked more incongruous.
It seemed at that moment -- and until very recently -- to be unassailable in any near future. "I remember thinking about it that night,'' said Boldon, who took the bronze medal. "And I said to myself, 'When I die, that's still going to be the record.''' Boldon was 22 years old at the time. No sprinter has come within three-tenths of a second since that night.
Now, of course, there is talk that it will happen Wednesday night at the Olympic Stadium known as the Bird's Nest, when Jamaica's remarkable Bolt races in the Olympic final one day before his 22nd birthday. After all, Bolt has previously been a 200-meter specialist (World Junior champion at age 16) and he has run 19.67 this year, into a modest headwind. That, and the world saw how easily he ran a world record 9.69 seconds to win the gold medal last Saturday night in the 100 meters, while celebrating for the last 15 meters.
The case can be made that Bolt is ready to take down MJ's record long before it's time. In this week's Sports Illustrated, I quote Jamaican-born Canadian Donovan Bailey, the '96 Olympic 100-meter champion, as saying, "If he gets someone to push him through the corner [turn], we could see something unbelievable. I'm thinking between 19.22 and 19.26.''
Bolt is already a respectable and a solid turn runner. And he will have somebody to push him through the curve. "Shawn,'' said U.S. 200-meter runner Wallace Spearmon, referring to '04 Olympic deuce champion Shawn Crawford, who always takes it out.
On Tuesday in Beijing, I sought out and talked to the three men who landed on the medal stand in that Atlanta race: Johnson, Fredericks and Boldon. They share an appreciation for the race, skepticism that Bolt will take down the record in the Games and various levels of certain that he will get it eventually.
"I think he'll run 19.5-something,'' said Johnson, who is in Beijing as Jeremy Wariner's manager. "Will he be able to sustain what we saw the other day, which was incredible? I just don't think he's been doing the type of training he needs to do that. I put what he did the other day down to the fact that the guy has got an incredibly long stride and he's figured out how to make that long stride technically efficient.
"Speed endurance is something different, where you've got to hold that speed for a much longer time and that doesn't come into play in the 100 meters,'' Johnson said. "It becomes an endurance issue. The 200 is just a different feel.
"But he's run in the 19.6s already this year, and he's going to run faster here,'' said Johnson. "And now, eventually, does he run faster than 19.32? I think it's inevitable.''
Fredericks was Johnson's foil in '96, having beaten him in Oslo, Norway -- 19.82 to 19.85 -- just before the Games. Fredericks was a world champion, an Olympic silver medalist and a fast, reliable performer. And he was in a lane outside Johnson in the Olympic final.
"Michael was running against somebody who had just beaten him and on a track where he had already broken a very old world record,'' said Fredericks. "This made for very good conditions for him to run fast.''
Fredericks and Boldon both recall that Johnson ran the turn 100 in 10.12 seconds. Fredericks was close behind in 10.14 and Boldon next in 10.19. Then Johnson blew out the last 100 meters in 9.20 seconds (obviously with no block start to slow him down). "We all ran an extremely good bend, but Michael ran away from me in the final 100 meters,'' said Fredericks. "Nobody else ever did that to me before in my entire career. But I feel blessed and happy that I was part of such a great race.
Fredericks, who is also in Beijing as a member of the International Committee, hesitates to anoint Bolt. "At the time, in 1996, I thought that Michael's record would stand for a long time,'' said Fredericks. "It could still stand for a long time. There is no guarantee.''
Here he references Bolt's celebration at the end of the 100 meters. "I think it was a spectacular performance,'' Fredericks said. "Most of us, as track fans, would have liked to have seen what he would have run if he had run through the finish. I did stupid things when I was young, too. You think it will always be easy and you'll never have injuries and you'll always be strong and healthy. But this is not the way it works. You have to take chances when you have them.''
Boldon, who is in Beijing working as a sprint analyst for NBC, doesn't see Johnson's record falling on Wednesday night either. "I see 19.39, 40, 41, something like that,'' said Boldon. Told of Johnson's prediction of 19.50-something, Boldon says, "That's too slow.
"I see him running the curve in 10.05, which is faster than Michael,'' says Boldon. "But then I don't see him coming home as fast as Michael did, maybe 9.35 or so. That would be 19.40 and I think he'll be right around there. Michael had the fear factor with Frankie in the race, and that's something that Bolt definitely does not have because he's not afraid of anybody in the race.''
Like Fredericks, Boldon disapproves of Bolt's celebratory let-up in the 100. "There was just a little too much 'I'm better than you,' to the other guys,'' he said. "I said that on air and I've been getting hate mail from Jamaicans for three days.''
Johnson looks at Bolt's future and sees at least two world records, with a shot at a third. "It if was me, I'd take down the 100 even further this year,'' Johnson said. "Because he can take that down somewhere that nobody else is going to get it for a while. Then train next year for the 200 until he takes that one down. Then start training for the 400. I don't know if he can run 43.18 [Johnson's world record, set in 1999], but he can run 44 for sure.'' (Bolt was a Jamaican champion in both the 200 and 400 in high school).
On Tuesday night in the Bird's Nest, Bolt won his semifinal heat in a cruising 20.09 seconds. Crawford worked the curve hard and Bolt eased past him just as they straightened out. Spearman ran up on a slowing Bolt at the finish and afterward suggested Bolt could be caught in the final strides by a natural 200-meter specialist, as had happened to him in previous seasons. "Same old Bolt,'' said Spearmon. Asked if he planned to run Bolt down, Spearmon said, "Yes; I'll say yes to that.''
It should be said that Bolt himself was skeptical in post-race interviews about his chances at getting 19.32. "I'm going to run my heart out, but right now it's kind of hard,'' said Bolt. "I've run four rounds of the 100 and now three rounds of the 200. So it's kind of hard to go out there and set the record.''
Johnson, who always approached his events scientifically, says he always thought he would see his record fall. The 200-meter mark was broken once in 28 years before the summer of 1996, which is much too seldom. In the last three summers, five runners -- Bolt, Spearmon, Tyson Gay, Walter Dix (who is also in the 200 final) and Xavier Carter -- have broken 19.70.
"These guys have been running in that gap between the old record and my record,'' Johnson said. "Guys should have been doing more even before they did.''
I asked him if he thought, even back in '96, if his record would last, say, 50 years. "Nah,'' he said. "You can't think that. People are going to keep running fast.''
The larger point is this: Twelve years ago on the floor of a track stadium that would become Turner Field, a record was set that seemed it might endure at least as long as Beamon's (23 years). It is remarkable to even discuss the possibility that it will not.