Michael Johnson - 200-400 Specialist


Italian Pietro Mennea’s world record in the 200 metres, of 19.72s, set at the altitude of Mexico City in 1979 in the World Student Games, seemed to last forever till Michael Johnson shattered it with a 19.66s effort at the U.S. Olympic trials in 1996.

Johnson followed that up with a blinding 19.32s in the Atlanta Olympics final. There was disbelief around the athletics world. Can someone run that fast?

The world had not seen Usain Bolt at work.

By the time he set that stunning record in Atlanta, Johnson had won the 400 metres in 43.49s. To date, he is the only man in Olympic history to own that unlikely 200-400 double.

Johnson is a rare specimen of a sprinter. With an upright running style, a low knee lift and short strides he does not seem to generate the kind of speed he actually touches around the track.

His best for the 100m is only 10.09s. Furiously chased by Namibian Frankie Fredericks, one of the all-time great 200m specialists, and Trinidad’s Ato Boldon, round the curve, he ran the Atlanta Olympics’ initial 100-metre segment in an unofficial 10.12s. That meant he ran the last 100 in 9.20s!

Bolt did not better that in his Beijing world record of 19.30s when he had unofficial splits of 9.98 and 9.32. He, however, was close to that with unofficial splits of 9.92 and 9.27 for his 19.19s world record in the Berlin World Championships in 2009.

Johnson did not qualify from the U.S. Olympic trials in 2000 for the 200m. He thus only ran the 400 in Sydney, and won again in 43.84s.

The big Texan would have had the 4x400m gold also in Atlanta but for an injury. He did gain one more gold medal in Sydney, being part of the relay, but the U.S. team was stripped of that gold when Antonio Pettigrew, one of the members of the team, admitted in 2008 that he had doped during that time.

Pettigrew, who had ended Johnson’s 58-race winning streak in 400m finals, from 1989 to 1997, committed suicide in 2010.

Johnson set a world record of 43.18 in the World Championships in Seville in 1999. That record has remained intact to date. It was his sixth and last world title in individual events beginning 1991. He had two relay gold medals too in his glittering collection.

K. P. Mohan