Now the starter called the runners to stand behind their blocks for the 200 final. Johnson did so, staring straight ahead. The boisterous crowd was quieted by the announcer, and Johnson consciously let all the rivers of pressure flow through him. "There was the pressure from the 80,000 people there who expect you to win," he would say two days later, his tone still one of relish. "Not to mention having the Olympic schedule changed for you, and all the years of magazine covers, photo shoots, people calling, people calling to try to take off the pressure but just making more pressure, and the fact that Frankie and [Trinidad and Tobago's] Ato Boldon were running really, really well. I thought, If I don't win this, a lot of things are going to be said that I will not want to hear."
He let the pressure fill him to bursting. (Later it would shock him to hear Fredericks admit that he hated pressure. "I crave it," Johnson would say. "I live for that very moment in the blocks when you may win, but you don't know, and now you're going to find out.") Then his mind cleared away all the chaff and printed one defining sentence: The 200 is the one I want, this is the reason I'm here. That thought had not come to him these whole Games, not until now.
"It was perfect," Johnson would say. "It dumped a whole other ton of pressure into the mix. It was like one of my competitors coming up and hitting me."
This was the full-circle moment. This was when he would strike back at the fates, take what he had been owed for four years.
At the command the finalists rose to the set position. A second before the gun, a tremor ran through Johnson's body, and he flinched but held steady. He would not know he had done this until he watched the tapes. He would say, "I was focused only on the gun."
It fired. Johnson reacted well, in .16 of a second, but on his fourth step he stumbled slightly. Then he was on his way. Fredericks led early, but Johnson caught him at 80 meters, and there, feeling strong and in control, he lifted into a gear neither he nor anyone else had attained. "I did know, off the turn, I was running faster than I ever have," he would say. "So I went to my endurance."
In the stretch his effort was engraved on his face. His gold chain sawed back and forth across the straining cords of his neck as he drew two, three, four meters ahead of Fredericks. The great crowd stood as one, calling him home.
He hit the line, looked left at the clock, and for an instant his expression was, as he later put it, "Where the hell did that come from?" The clock read 19.32. Johnson had broken his world record by .34 of a second. It was a time statisticians had not projected would be run until a couple of decades into the next century. There are thousands of people who have burned into memory the bug-eyed face of a friend to whom they turned that night, staggered, as the seatmate mouthed silently in the bedlam, "Nine-teen-point-thirty-two! Can it be, 19.32?"
Johnson was no different. Later he wondered why he hadn't thought something was wrong with the clock. "I thought I could do 19.5," he said. "But not this, not 19.3. I'd have lost a lot of money betting that I wouldn't get 19.3."
Fredericks, who was clocked in 19.68, the third-fastest time in history, was beaten by four meters, the largest winning margin in an Olympic 200 since Jesse Owens defeated Mack Robinson 20.7 to 21.1 in 1936. Boldon was third in 19.80 and made a comic little bow of obeisance to Johnson. "Nineteen-point-thirty-two," said Boldon. "That's not a time. It sounds like my dad's birth date."