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The Tortoise and the Hare
Gary Smith
July 22, 1996
Michael Johnson Is The World's Greatest Sprinter—And Perhaps Its Most Deliberate Man.
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July 22, 1996

The Tortoise And The Hare

Michael Johnson Is The World's Greatest Sprinter—And Perhaps Its Most Deliberate Man.

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That's it. None of the other runners in Barcelona knows about the meal in the Salamanca restaurant or what it has done to Michael. They don't expect to beat him. He will conquer them now, in this lonely hour before the starting gun cracks, by maintaining that aura, that airtight capsule of invulnerability. Hadn't he found himself, after running in a slow heat, all the way out in lane 8 for the Olympic trials 200-meter final just a month earlier? The loneliest lane, with everyone staggered behind him, with no one to run against but himself. Hadn't he entered the Danger Zone earlier and deeper than ever for that final, becoming so ferociously cold and far away the night before that even his agent and brother got the heebie-jeebies? He blitzed through the fastest 200 of his life the next day, went back to his hotel room and let out what the world never heard or saw. "I MADE IT!" he had shouted, leaping up and down on his bed with his brother. "I'M GOING TO THE OLYMPICS!"

He coils into the starting blocks. He goes out with the bang. "There's chaos at the beginning of a race," he says. "I try to bring order to it." He tidies up his first-round heat in 20.80 seconds. What no one but Michael knows is that it takes everything he has. He places second in his second-round heat in 20.55. Smart, his competitors think, just easing in—but he's turning away so they don't see him gulping for air!

He returns to his hotel room. He loves pressure, the tension of having to produce, the chance to confirm the extent of his control. He'll take a friend's Ferrari up to 180, and he's hell on water with a Jet Ski. But on one condition: no surprises. The first time he will agree to attempt the 200-400 double, for nearly $100,000 at a 1994 meet in Madrid, he'll plot exactly how much time he needs between the two events—enough so he can recover, but not too much or he'll stiffen. When the Spanish, being the Spanish, are late starting the first event, he'll say the hell with them and refuse to do it. But this is the Olympics. All his planning has gone awry, and there's nothing he can do but go through with it.

He steps onto the track for the last round before the finals. "Feeling something I'd never felt before a race," he says. "Feeling helpless." The gun sounds. He's still in position to win at 100 meters...and then...everything...slows...down...and...Michael's sitting lost for hours on the wrong bus in Dallas...nailed to the living room floor without an answer or a plan under the cocked eye of his front of the whole world. The people he has been leaving in the dust for three years surge past him. Eleven competitors in the semifinal round run faster than his 20.78. He does not qualify for the final.

He fixes his face in stone so no one can see what is whirling inside him. "I wasn't surprised," he will say later. "I had prepared myself for this." He walks to the press conference, says all the correct things, tells the world the sun will rise tomorrow and so will Michael Johnson. Then he walks outside the stadium, sags onto the curb and feels the tears streaming down his cheeks.


This is where our character should spin out of control, where the iron will, snapped by fate, should scatter in jagged fragments. But you were warned at the outset, remember? Here is where love acts as the enemy of drama, as a parachute for the man in free fall. His father, mother, brother and two sisters are waiting at the hotel to hug him that day. "We love you, Son" are the first words from Paul Sr.'s mouth. The father and son go out onto the balcony alone. The father has no questions this time. The son no answers. He just stares across the Barcelona twilight and cries once more.

He wants to go back home the next day. He's leaking invulnerability in a very public place. He cannot bear the prospect of the three other runners on the 4x400 relay team—some of them the very ones whose grumbles he had to stare down—having to carry him now. But Hart talks him out of it. A weak Michael Johnson, Hart insists, is still one of the four fastest 400 runners in the world.

Enough, just enough, he is able to bend—the truest sign of strength—to this new reality. He swallows his pride, stays for the relay, and even though his leg is the team's slowest, the U.S. foursome sets a world record. Then he leaves the track circuit and goes back to Dallas, back to church each Sunday with his family. The pain of his defeat, the anger at a universe in which a man can lose the opportunity of a lifetime simply by walking through a restaurant door, the self-flagellation for not going to a doctor for medication to stanch the loss of fluids, it all remains contained and slowly cools into an ingot. A new goal. A new plan. That's all I need. A goal to blow away the competition in '93, to show that Barcelona was an aberration.

"My dad was even worried I'd do something crazy that night in Barcelona," he says. "But I've always seen track as a job that I love—it's not who I am. I'd had so much success up to that point, I'd already proved I was the best."

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