It's not as if, even through our tears, we didn't see Michael Johnson coming. He marched through the preliminary rounds of the 400 meters with such unchallenged surety that by Monday night's final, he had become not only history's most expected Olympic champion, But also a rock on which a grateful Atlanta might steady these swaying Olympic Games.
Johnson sprinted the first 300 meters of the final with crisp control, hit the stretch at least two meters clear of the field, then dropped his arms and made an extraordinary run at one of track's most intransigent world records. The 400-meter standard has been broken exactly once in the last 28 years, by Butch Reynolds with his 43.29 in 1988.
Fighting off any temptation to preserve himself for the 200 meters he is scheduled to run on Thursday—the other end of the historic double he is attempting—Johnson closed his eyes with the strain in the last 40 meters. The visage he calls his "big ole ugly face" became a portrait of a man bearing up under great weight. He hit the line and cast a glance toward the clock. It read 43.49. He had nipped the Olympic record set by the U.S.'s Quincy Watts in 1992 by .01 of a second but was still a stride short of perfection.
He slowed with an expression of relief. He never cracked a smile. He had made this victory appear not a formality, because he ran with passionate but ordained power. And if Johnson's golden shoes, beribboned medal and the IAAF officials who presented it to him then suddenly seemed to turn into miter, scepter and archbishops, that only showed how much we needed his exalted, reliable self just now.
"The individual gold medal was more important than the world record, and I got that," said Johnson, for whom this was his first, because a case of food poisoning weakened him and kept him from winning the 200 in Barcelona four years ago. "I've always said, after I won things like world championships [in 1993 and '95] that they didn't make up for '92," said Johnson, taking a deep breath. "Well, winning this gold medal makes up for Barcelona. I am happy with my performance."
Then he withdrew—after a stop at the long jump pit to offer his hand to a fallen U.S. teammate, Mike Powell, who lay in agony after pulling his left groin muscle. Powell's injury left the gold medal and a page of history to 35-year-old Carl Lewis, who became the only man other than American discus thrower Al Oerter to win four individual golds in an Olympic event (page 54).
Johnson's page in history remained to be written, and he left the stadium Monday night to prepare for it. Certainly there could be no more welcome tone in a Games suddenly plunged by violence into questioning its own meaning. In the wake of the terror in Centennial Park, Johnson and his fellow athletes had drawn together not to redeem anything—they didn't do anything wrong except attract so much of the world's attention—but to remind us, with all the force of their being, why we have come to Atlanta. And it's not to party.
Erik Brady and Ben Brown, in an article in Monday's USA Today about Atlanta's citizens trying "to take back the streets" from fear also wrote "without the populist spark of the park, the Olympics might become little more than a track meet with passports."
Lord, that that might be true, because it's exactly what Olympians yearn for. The inner Olympia, the ideal competitive venue—for any athlete from Johnson to the least of his overmatched competitors—has no Budweiser or Coke pavilions, no commercial interruptions in the middle of races. There is only a lane, a court, a beam, an oarlock. And perhaps a knowing throng, as intent on your efforts as you are.
Consider the eight tense men who stood behind their blocks last Saturday night and stared down their assigned lanes for the 100-meter final, heedless that the Olympic flag was hanging at half-staff. In this, the moment when years of preparation and posturing would either carry them to gold or to despair, a bombing in the Olympic city was perhaps the easiest distraction to subdue. Harder to put out of mind was the stunning depth of the field for this race.