There was a delay. The officials had escorted the Olympic men's 200-meter finalists to their marks a few extra minutes before the scheduled start of the race, so Michael Johnson, warm and grim, sat on the box with the number 3 on it that marked his lane. His mustache was perfectly shaved. If he was nervous, it had not affected his razor hand.
Throughout the stadium, people called his name, screaming, "Michaelllll!" as if he were their last thought as they fell from a burning building. He no longer heard them. In this unwonted moment the whole shape of his mission was suddenly clear to him.
He was back in Barcelona, four years earlier, mortifyingly weak from his famous case of food poisoning. He was watching the final of this race, the 200, which he, the prohibitive favorite, had not even made. He was taking an oath.
The fates may have taunted him—a man to whom control is paramount, a man who plans against every possible hindrance—by slapping him with this freakish weakness, dashing his orderly dreams with something as unpredictable as a toxin in a revered restaurant's mixed grill. Well, so be it. If ever there was a man born to take revenge against the fates, it was Michael Johnson. He would return.
In 1996 he would employ the fury he was feeling to pursue a great 400-200 double, never accomplished by any man in any Olympics. So for the next four years he trained and raced to build and test the incredible sprint stamina needed to achieve that quest. He became the first man to rank first in the world in both distances in the same year. He became the first to break both 44 seconds in the 400 and 20 seconds in the 200, the first to win that double at the world championships.
For years he had seemed capable of world records in both events, yet he didn't set one until his 19.66 in this year's Olympic trials because achieving the double—with its eight races in five days, its premium on raw durability rather than pure speed—was more vital to him. He came to Atlanta and won the Olympic 400 in a near record 43.49, moving halfway to that precious double, and felt he had energy left to spend. He stood on the 400 victory stand, exultant, yes, but primarily relieved. "I had always been afraid," he said, "of ending my career without having won an individual gold medal." (He had a relay gold from '92.) Now that fear was stilled.
In Atlanta there were no unhinging interventions of fate. In fact, after the 400, Johnson's main worry was making sure he held the flag right-side-up on his victory lap. "Everything was going to plan," he said. "No surprises. I was surprised there were no surprises. The Centennial Park bombing was tragic, but the way the athletes and city responded and were able to acknowledge Alice Hawthorne's death and feel sympathy for her daughter and come back, it was all so positive, it made performance even more important."
The first two rounds of the 200 exacted a price. Johnson's left Achilles tendon was aching. The tendon behind his left knee, already sore coming into the Games, was worse, and he needed repeated adjustment of his sacroiliac joint.
"Since the 200 is more intense attack sprinting, I woke up the day of the semi and final with my whole body sore," Johnson said. He put it out of mind. "In what I like to call the danger zone, there are certain unimportant things you block out."
He won his semifinal in 20.27, coasting in, then watched Namibia's Frankie Fredericks win his semi in 19.98. In Oslo on July 5, Fredericks had beaten Johnson over 200 meters, and in Atlanta on July 27 had run a 9.89 to take the silver in the Olympic 100 behind Canada's Donovan Bailey, who set a world record of 9.84. The danger was clear.