For a while Johnson could only sort happily through all the things that were his to savor: the win, the completion of his double, the dizzying time. He walked a lap of flag-wrapped joy with an ice pack on the back of his right knee, having felt a low hamstring twinge in the last live meters. The slight strain, which would keep him out of the 4x400 relay on Saturday, mattered not at all in the giant shadow of this towering record.
Later one of Johnson's friends, Denver Broncos cornerback Ray Crockett, would phone and yell at him that when he came off the turn, he looked as if he was driving a car, for god's sake, and Johnson would realize for the first time how the sight of him must have affected his competitors. "I am rarely shocked by my own performance," he would say. "And I'm shocked. I can't think what 19.3 really means. It is so much more than I expected or predicted, I can't understand it yet."
The fates had done it again. They had risen up and clobbered Michael Johnson with the same lesson he had refused to bend to in Barcelona: There are things no one can predict. This time he was hurled clear to the other end of the emotional spectrum, but 19.32 was a time as devastating in its way as food poisoning.
He was only too eager to try to explore, if not explain, just where the time came from. "Part of it was the crowd," he said. Atlanta's crowds for track were the largest in memory. "The first round of the 200, 10:45 in the morning on a Wednesday, I walked out there, and the stands were packed, people howling my name," said Johnson. "I've never seen a crowd like this, the size of it, not even in Europe. They deserve the world record. Without them, it would have been 19.5."
Johnson's best times have all come at the end of a day that included preliminaries. Is it conceivable that running rounds helps his performance? "In part it does," he said. "In your warmup you can't really simulate running a 20.27, so doing it in the semifinal gets my body, my fast-twitch muscle fibers, ready for that kind of speed. But remember, the only time you run that many rounds is in the worlds, the Olympics or the Olympic trials. The big races. The races that put me in the zone, when I'm more focused and aggressive."
As he ticked off the variables, Johnson became more and more sure that the record was the result of the sudden joining of many forces, all that glorious pressure being turned into speed. It was a record, therefore, that required a man with a great sense of occasion, a man preternaturally eager to go out and shoulder the weight of millions of vicarious hopes. "I know a lot of people say when they succeed, suddenly it's like throwing off a huge weight," Johnson said, "but I enjoy it so much.... Well, it's not like it's exactly fun, not birthday-party fun, but I love it so, I do."
Maybe the question is, Where did that come from? That willingness to be depended upon? "It flows from wanting control," says Johnson, a self-analyst of some clarity. "All my life, if I have to depend on others, I'd rather have them depend on me."
Thus he finds himself in an Olympian's paradox. Does he insist that the rest of the world live up to the standards to which he holds himself? Johnson smiles, knowing he has made progress. "I think I've learned I can't control anyone but Michael," he says. "I can't control people. I've learned I can't expect from others what I expect from myself—which is a lot."
And, efficiency expert that he is, he sees the payoff: "I work better with people. It's freed me from doing a lot of things I couldn't expect others to do right."
After the 200 record Johnson celebrated quite capably at a party thrown for him and for decathlon victor Dan O'Brien at Atlanta's Planet Hollywood. Johnson's black silk singlet and the Florentine gold buckles on his shoes put to rest the idea that he is all solemnity and grind.