In Atlanta ’96 he managed to break his own record by stopping the clock at 19.32, to the surprise of all his rivals.
Michael Johnson It was already in 1992, and for two years before, the great dominator of the 200 meters (and the 400, by addition). But, before the Barcelona Games, in which he was the undisputed favorite, he suffered, due to ingestion of fish, a food poisoning after having eaten in a restaurant in Salamanca. He did not fully recover and was eliminated in the semifinals.
In Atlanta, four years later, he was at the height of his abilities. Also of his desire for revenge. In Atlanta itself, in the test definitive of the Olympic track, in the trials June selection, had broken with 19.66 the unflappable world record of Pietro Mennea (19.72), dating from 1979, in the altitude of Mexico, in the course of the Universiade.
On the day of the final, August 1, everything seemed ready for another feat: opponents of luxury; heat that lubricates the muscles of fast fibers; a very hard track, ideal for speed and harmful for long distance runners, who suffer from overloads (Gebrselassie had complained after winning 10,000 and given up 5,000).
But no one could imagine the outcome of the race. Johnson triumph? Sure. New world record? Probably. When the timer stopped at 7:32 p.m., there were a few moments of disbelief (was it broken?). Then an explosion of screams in which the beginning of the jubilation invaded the end of a wonder that, in turn, had replaced the logical disbelief.
Namibian Frank Fredericks, who, a few days earlier, had also been second in victory and world record in the 100-meter race. Donovan Bailey, did not give credit to what he saw on the scoreboard. With 19.68, better than Mennea’s, he had been four meters behind a Michael who had made the second hectometer, it is true that he faces thrown, at 9.20.
Ato Boldon, Trinidad’s lightning, also third in the 100 meters, was, like Fredericks, in a state of shock. His 19.80 would have earned him the gold in any of the previous editions of the Games. They were more valuable than 19.83 Tommie smith in Mexico’68 and equal to 19.80 of Carl lewis in Los Angeles’84. However, they only gave him for a bronze. He took it with humor: “7:32 p.m. is not a time. It sounds like my father’s birthday.”
The record, which lasted until 2008 and the unearthly irruption of Usain bolt, could have been even better. Johnson, just before arrival, suffered a strain on the upper part of his right calf and significantly lost speed. It was a minimal moment. A blink that undoubtedly amounted to a few hundredths (how many?). He was injured and could not intervene in the 4×400 relays.
What record would he have obtained if he had crossed the line without that last impediment? Impossible to know. But, once the record is achieved, which is the important thing, it is nice to keep the mystery and speculate about what could have been and was not.