It was as if Michael Johnson knew that high drama and iron self-control are implacable enemies.
Having persuaded the International Olympic Committee to change the schedule at the Atlanta Games so he could attempt an unprecedented men's 200-400 double, and having then won the 400 meters masterfully in an Olympic-record 43.49 seconds, he had put himself in a place where, in his words, "winning isn't enough."
The great Olympic lens focuses a billion good (or ill) wishes into burning pressure, but it wasn't hot or heavy enough for Johnson. He used his deepest, most congenital hatred, that of being publicly embarrassed, to turn up the furnace. He put on shoes of golden presumption. He spoke of expecting to win the double. "I just wish more people thought I couldn't do it," he said. "The higher the stakes, the better I am." He deliberately left himself a single choice: transcendent performance or mortal shame.
His prime opponent, Namibia's Frankie Fredericks, shrank from any heightened expectation. Johnson was shocked to hear that. Pressure is a fact, he felt. Let it burn.
So at the gun in the 200 final, Johnson started with power, caught Fredericks after 80 meters and at last felt the heat in his blood, at last ran with utter abandon. He drew away to win by four meters. He looked at the clock. It read 19.32.
In the 60 years since Jesse Owens clocked 20.7 at the Berlin Olympics, the world's great sprinters—Henry Carr, Tommie Smith, Pietro Mennea, Carl Lewis, Johnson himself—had together improved the 200 world record by barely more than a second, to Johnson's 19.66, set last June.
That 19.32 meant Johnson had joined long jumper Bob Beamon before him in producing a performance that was a glimpse into a distant future. And Johnson had been so out of control that he had injured himself, having surpassed the speed that already-sore muscles could withstand. (His times over the rest of the summer would be, for him, modest.) But we shall forgive him, knowing that we howled him to it, knowing he had no choice but to respond.