This story has no climax. It contains no death, nor even one of those near brushes that quicken the heartbeat. There is no central pain nor emotional trauma around which it revolves. Intestinal bacteria, a few days of diarrhea for the central character—that's all I can promise you. I apologize and understand completely should you choose to abandon the endeavor right here.
Our character is a quiet and cool-blooded man, highly organized, very serious and extremely cautious—not the traits a dramatist would select could he load up his protagonist with features as one might a new car. Were it not for his one extravagance in life, his one audacity—his plan to stand at the center of the most widely watched spectacle on earth and do something no man has ever done—it would hardly seem worth the reader's valuable time to go further.
This plan, it should be noted, is not a long shot nor a daydream, for of all people, our character does not traffic in such things. If life simply proceeds according to logic, to pattern, to form—all old and intimate friends of his—he will emerge from the Atlanta Olympics as the first man to win gold medals in both the 200 and 400 meters at the same Games, and in the 4x400-meter relay as well. After all, he has won 54 straight finals in the 400 and has never, never, lost an outdoor final in the event. He won 21 consecutive finals in the 200. He has been ranked No. 1 in the world in both events for four years, something no other runner has done for even one year. He has won the world championship in each sprint singly (the 200 at Tokyo in 1991 and the 400 at Stuttgart in 1993) and doubly in Göteborg, Sweden, last summer. Why, just a month ago—perhaps you heard—he swept them both in the U.S. Olympic Trials and set a 200-meter world record of 19.66 seconds while going about it. "I try to remember," confesses Derek Mills, the world's third-ranked 400-meter runner, "that he's just a man."
He is a man with nothing in his personal life to distract him, nothing in his emotional makeup to undermine him; in short, there is nothing controllable that he will fail to control. He is an arrow shaved of all superfluity, feathered strictly for aerodynamics, drawn and discharged with the barest expenditure of motion, an arrow streaming nowhere except to its target.
This economy of motion and emotion, however, creates a dilemma. He is probably one of the three best sprinters of all time, but most of his countrymen barely know him. His ego demands the recognition he deserves, but his careful nature groans. Could a man become a legend...on his own terms? He would have to construct a plan and execute it explicitly.
So now he steps before us, in his prime at 28. All is ready. Everything's perfect. Almost as it was...well, yes, almost as it was on that summer evening two weeks before the '92 Olympics, as he strolled down a narrow cobblestone street in Salamanca, a lovely medieval town in Spain, freshly showered after yet another victory, on his way to fetch a burger and some fries.
Whoa. That restaurant up ahead, the one with the suckling pig surrounded by bright red chunks of lamb and beef, sausage and cured ham in the window—isn't that the very one at which Michael Johnson and his agent, Brad Hunt, had eaten the night before? What a coincidence for them to encounter it again this evening on their way to the Burger King. What a series of happenstances had brought them inside on the previous evening. If the sports reporter for the Spanish newspaper El País hadn't happened to be a classmate of Brad's at Penn, they probably never would have agreed to an interview over dinner, and if the classmate hadn't happened to bump into someone at the office who recommended El Candil.... Of course, Michael won't go back in there tonight. Not without the reporter, Clemson Smith Muñiz, to maneuver him around all the trapdoors in the menu, all the obstacles of language with the waiters.
After all, Burger King is just across the central plaza, 200 meters away—less than 20 seconds, in Michael's case. That's where all the other runners are going. It's safe there. It's just like home. Everything in Michael's past says he will make the safe, well-reasoned choice. "He measures everything," says Brad Hunt. "I don't," says Michael, "set myself up for disappointment or embarrassment."
He is the sort of man who shops for hours for one article of clothing, peering at it from every angle in the mirror, weighing its price against that of a similar item in another mall even though he is a millionaire. Any new appointment, any alteration in his workout regimen, he promptly records in his electronic organizer, the Wizard YO-370. He keeps track of each of his investments on his home computer, and when he needs to travel overseas, he knows where to find his passport—in the "P" folder of his impeccably maintained filing cabinet. The moment he returns, he has to unpack his suitcase. "His condo looks like no one has ever lived there," says his sister Deidre in awe. "You go to hug him after he wins a big race," adds his sister Regina, "and he'll tell you, 'I'm sweaty.' "