Halfway through the men's 400-meter final at the world track and field championships in Göteborg, Sweden, last week, the leaders were even, making their differences seem mere matters of style. World-record holder Butch Reynolds, whose 43.29 has stood since 1988, ran so tall and so long that Michael Johnson, with his lower knees and shorter gait, seemed a maxed-out trotter trying to stay with a thoroughbred.
But then, passing 200 meters in 21.3 seconds, the trotter began to sprint, and he showed a marveling world (and a devastated Reynolds) that he is the modern incarnation of Jesse Owens.
Owens, the hero of the 1936 Olympics, said he ran as if the track were the top of a hot stove; he tried to snatch up each foot the instant he put it down. Johnson, burning through the third 100 meters in 10.45, perfectly embodied Owens's technique. Then in the stretch, running away, his lead yawning past six meters, Johnson showed that he has added an implacable, muscular endurance to Owens's mechanics.
When Johnson was a single stride from the finish, the clock on the infield to his left still hadn't reached 43 seconds. Johnson didn't look at it. Reynolds tried to. "I couldn't see it," he would say, "but Michael was so far ahead...." Reynolds was sick with fear. "For seven years the record has been a part of life, a part of me."
Only when he had crossed the finish line did Johnson allow himself a sidelong glance at the clock. Later, many watching the slow-motion replay of this moment would cry out in surprise: He wanted that world record. He did not quite get it. His 43.39 was .1 of a second shy, allowing Reynolds perhaps another week, perhaps another year of queasy stewardship.
In any other athlete a simple look at the clock, a passing betrayal of ambition, would hardly be cause for wonder. But in Michael Johnson we have a champion as remarkable for his containment as for his speed, his range and his durability.
Indeed, there is danger that the whole of what Johnson went on to do in the worlds—running six preliminaries and three finals, winning the 400 last Wednesday and the 200 on Friday, anchoring the victorious U.S. 4 x 400-meter relay team on Sunday and moving the International Amateur Athletic Federation to consider changing the Olympic schedule of events to allow a reprise of his 200-400 double in Atlanta—may obscure the merit of his performances.
The 400 he ran, for example, was intrinsically superior to the world record. Johnson had to run three rigorous 400s (45.49, 45.15 and 44.90) to make the final, while in 1988 Reynolds had gone to Zurich rested, as had his opponents. The men behind Reynolds in Zurich had better times than those behind Johnson in Göteborg, proof of the drain of the rounds in Sweden.
Johnson had not coasted to a stop after the 400 before the dean of European track experts, Robert Pariente of the French sports daily, L'Equipe, was on his feet. "Mon Dieu, 10.45 seconds for the third 100! On the turn!" he said. "Impossible." Johnson had left his opponents so fast that he eased the sting of their defeat. Bronze medalist Greg Haughton of Jamaica (44.56) and seventh-placer Roger Black of Britain (45.28) held up their heads and said they were honored to be in Johnson's wake.
Johnson trotted a victory lap, his satisfaction evident but measured. In part this was because he had to run a heat for the 200 meters the next morning, but it was also because Johnson is simply not given to dramatic displays. This, not so curiously, struck a nerve in the man who has given track wondrous theater.