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Quarter-milers seek their fate not in their souls but in their lanes. When Michael Johnson of Dallas awoke last Saturday morning, the day of the 400-meter final at the USA/Mobil Track & Field Championships at the University of Oregon's Hayward Field, in Eugene, his agent, Brad Hunt, told him he had drawn Lane 3. The force of Johnson's reaction made the hair rise on Hunt's neck. "It's on" Johnson rumbled, his eyes narrowing in pleasure.
Because of the 400's staggered start, each lane is a slightly different version of a good-news, bad-news joke. Runners on the inside arc hindered by the tighter turns but can see and stalk the competition. The outside lanes offer wider bends but at the cost of being blind to any moves made by runners inside.
Thus Johnson, who was top ranked in both the 200 and the 400 in 1990 and '91, and is perhaps the best sprinter of tight turns ever, was right where he wanted to be, a specter, preying on the minds of the magnificent quarter-milers ranged outside him.
"Never," he said afterward, "have I run against this much talent."
The field included 1991 world champion Antonio Pettigrew, 1992 Olympic champion Quincy Watts and world-record holder (43.29) Butch Reynolds. Reynolds had been tempered by three years of battle with the International Amateur Athletic Federation over a drug suspension, but he was still so nervous he could barely cat. "This 400 is a man's race," he said. "This race is rated X, for adults only. Boys, please stay home."
That was a dart aimed at Johnson. For though Johnson is the only man ever to break 20 (he has a 19.79) and 44 (43.98) seconds for the 200 and the 400, respectively, and though not once in his life has he been beaten in a 400 final, he has stuck so firmly to the 200 in world and Olympic competition that he has never been accepted as a peer by the brotherhood of quarter-milers.
"They always say that I'm only a boy," says Johnson, "that I've only run single 400s, not the rounds of an Olympics. They say it's easy to come out and beat up on people in a selected race, but it takes a man to last through heats and semis and finals. Lot of cm didn't even want me to run a leg on the Olympic 4 X 400 relay."
So Johnson had come to Eugene to shoulder his way into the club, although his move to the 400 also had a little to do with straining his left hamstring while running a 10.12 and 20.15 sprint double at the Arlington Open in Texas on May 1. When he was forced to curtail his speed work, the 400 became his best and safest event. Although he knew that husbanding his strength through the prelims was his essential challenge, he boomed out to a big lead in his heat anyway then slowed dramatically to walk in with 45.62.
Reynolds's coach. Brooks Johnson, saw that and read unsureness. "A person sublimely arrogant," he said, "doesn't get involved in that kind of display."
Reynolds ran a cautious heat but then burned the fastest time in the semis, 44.81. "Little problem there controlling my aggression," he said. "I feel like I've been ready to run this race for a month."