So swiftly does he reestablish the proper order in 1993, and so regularly does he prove his dominance, that he begins to wonder why he should be satisfied with winning one event—either the 200 or the 400—and watching someone else win the other. The idea of doubling grows inside him. It runs into the teeth of conventional track wisdom, which has always considered the 200 a speed event and the 400 more a test of power and endurance, requiring a different training program. And into the teeth of track history, which has seen no man achieve the 200-400 double in a meet of any significance since America's Maxie Long at the U.S. Championships in 1899. And into the teeth of the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), track and field's governing body, which must be persuaded to alter its Olympic timetable in Atlanta so he can run in both events.
He plots two major dress rehearsals. Before the first one—the U.S. nationals in June 1995—he listens as his agent tells him that no matter how magnificent the quest, its appeal to fans and corporate sponsors will remain tepid if all the world ever sees of him is that cold look in his eyes. Michael is a man who majored in marketing, one who cannot live with the thought that he is not maximizing his opportunities, and he knows that what his agent says is true. But it's just not natural for the arrow to shimmy. As he's crossing the finish line in the 400 final at the nationals, he turns toward the crowd and throws up his arms. He fails to smile, though, and the effect is leaden, interpreted by his competitors as gloating. He wins the double, and two months later his attempt to do it at the world championships in Göteborg becomes the centerpiece of the competition. "The world championships, it's boring," says Lewis, who is sitting out the meet with a strained hamstring. "The electricity is not there. There's no buzz. The one American they are trying to build up is Michael Johnson, and he's not doing anything for them. I guarantee that if I was in the 100 meters, it would have been sold out."
The cautious man and the flamboyant one have always seemed to rub each other wrong. Perhaps it all began near the end of Michael's college career, when he spurned an approach by the Santa Monica Track Club, the team of elite trackmen led by Lewis. Or maybe Carl, who has won once in six 200-meter confrontations with Michael, just isn't quite ready to pass on the mantle of The Man. "There is nothing that meshes between these two men, except that they both run fast," say Brad Hunt. Michael says, "There is absolutely no personal relationship with me and Carl."
Michael wins both races in Göteborg—unprecedented at the world championships—and comes within an eye blink of two world records. What is it, besides his phenomenal focus, that enables him to straddle two events in which other gifted runners would never consider doubling? It turns out that it's his running style, the one that once made college recruiters so uneasy. Ralph Mann, a biomechanical expert and former Olympic 400-meter hurdler, has formulated a model for the ideal 200, which reveals that rapidity of stride turnover is more important than stride length, and that Michael's skimming stride is the most efficient in the world. "Because his style doesn't use up as much energy, lie can sprint at the end," says Hart. "He is the only one who can keep his stride for an entire 400 because he runs so relaxed. Throw all the other models away for sprinting. Michael is the model."
His success in Göteborg virtually forces the IAAF to change the Olympic schedule to accommodate him. Pursuing the never-done double creates the shift in focus that Michael needs. To return to the Olympics only to claim what should have been his in 1992—gold in the 200—somehow that never sat right in his psyche. That would be a victim's quest, an acknowledgment, in a sense, of personal failure that required redemption, too vulnerable a position for such a man. Wouldn't it be far better for a goal-hungry creature to reach for something more? Let friends like former Baylor teammate Tony Miller keep saying, "He carries that burn from '92. The only thing that'll cool him off is winning the double in Atlanta. He started a job, and he hasn't finished it. Michael Johnson has to finish a job." Michael keeps insisting, "This has nothing to do with Barcelona. If I win, they won't go back and give me that gold medal. No, what this means is history. There are two household names in the history of track and field—Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis. I'm in position to be the third.
"It'll be the biggest show of the Olympics. I'm going to be The Man at these Olympics. My fans expect it, and I expect it. I've gotten wrapped up in it just like everyone else. It's like Christmas when you're a kid. I can't wait for it to get here. I get butterflies thinking of myself in the blocks for the 400 and 200 finals, with everyone watching and thinking, Is Michael going to win it or blow it? Winning isn't enough. It has to be more than just trying to win gold medals. I want to set world records in both events, but the only way to set world records is to focus on winning. There's so much hype, it'll help me. I just wish more people still thought I couldn't do it. The higher the stakes, the better I am."
If the old Yiddish saying is true—Man plans, God laughs—then the Olympics have kept heaven in stitches for a long, long time. Jim Ryun's tumble in 1972 and Mary Decker's spill in 1984 must have been amusing. Then there were the two American sprinters, Eddie Hart and Rev Robinson, also at the '72 Games, who failed to appear for their 100-meter heats because their coach was reading from an out-of-date schedule.
Who can fathom the psychic energy that a man as careful as Michael Johnson has spent to make sure God's giggles don't come at his expense again? "No, my dad doesn't have to tell me what I should have thought of anymore," he says. "Now I tell him what I should have thought of."
He would have to be more serious than ever about his training for the Atlanta Games—and yet, to capitalize on the attention suddenly coming his way, spend more time than ever traveling to fulfill endorsement contracts with Nike, Sara Lee, Coca-Cola, AT&T, Mobil and Bausch & Lomb. He would have to open up enough to let the media see past the frosted windshield he brought to meets, and yet make sure that no one got too close, for he wished to be well known without ever really being known. "I'm planning what type of advertising and media I want, what type of image I want people to see in me," he says nine months before the Games. "I want to correct the image people have of me. I'm serious about running, but I also like to joke and laugh and have a lot of fun." He would even have to learn to cope with failure, to pick himself up after Frankie Fredericks of Namibia ended his victory streak in the 200 meters just two weeks before the Games.