Johnson, Michael 1967–

views updated Jun 27 2018

Michael Johnson 1967

A Normal Childhood

Disappointed in Barcelona

An Olympic Hero


Track and field athlete

The lasting image of the 1996 Olympic Games will be that of Michael Johnson, arms raised in triumph, as he became the first man ever to take gold medals in both the 200 and 400 meter sprints at the same Olympics. Johnsons remarkable double victory proved to be the highlight of the Summer Games in Atlanta, and it helped to promote positive images not only of the athlete himself, but of his chosen sport as well. For a year or more before the Olympics, Johnson had confidently predicted that he could take gold medals in the two grueling sprints. He even lobbied to have the Olympic schedule changed to accommodate his ambitions. Then, under mountains of pressure, in the glare of a spotlight he did not court, Johnson ran magnificently and made history.

Variously described as shy, aloof, self-contained, and independent, Johnson has spent his career concentrating more upon his victories than upon his media image. The history-making double gold at the Olympics brought him into the limelight as an American sports hero, however, and he rose to the occasion with grace and wit. Its tough being Michael Johnson, but I enjoy that position, he told theAtlanta Constitution.I enjoy being the one everyone is shooting at or shooting for. Really, it puts pressure on me. But I feel if I continue what I need to do, Ill win the race. Such confidence has bred success: with the Olympics behind him, Johnson has won 55 straight 400 meter finals in an unbroken string leading back to 1989. He has occasionally been challenged in the 200 meter, but in that event he holds the world record19.32 secondsset at the 1996 Summer Games. His dominance on the track has made him a wealthy man, but it has wider implications as well: Johnson has emerged as a standard-bearer, a role model who will help to broaden American interest in track and field events.

A Normal Childhood

I think my upbringing had a lot to do with things I do now as far as setting goals for myself, Johnson told the New YorkDaily News just before the Olympics. I give my parents a lot of credit for a lot of correct decisions that Ive made in my life. Born Michael Duane Johnson in Dallas, Texas, Johnson grew up in a stable family environment with working parents and four older siblings.

At a Glance

Full name Michael Duane Johnson; born Septem ber 13, 1967, in Dallas, TX; son of Paul (a truck driver) and Ruby Johnson.Education: Baylor University, B.A., 1990.

Track and field athlete. Won 1989 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) 200 meter indoor championship; ranked first in the world in the 200 meter and 400 meter sprints in 1990; turned professional in 1990, won the 1991 world championship in 200 meter sprint; won gold medal as part of 1992 American Olympic 4x400 relay team; won 1993 world championship in 400 meter sprint; won 1995 world championships in 200 meter and 400 meter sprints; won 1996 Olympic gold medals in 200 meter and 400 meter sprints; holds world record in 200 meter sprint.

Addresses:Officedo United States Olympic Committee, 1750 East Boulder St., Colorado Springs, CO 80909.

who stressed education but also enjoyed playing sports. Pretty normal was how Johnson put it in thePhiladelphia Inquirer when he was asked about his childhood. The track star himself was a studious youngster who wore black-rimmed glasses and shunned contact sports such as football and basketball. He preferred running from the start. I dont like depending on anyone for anything in life, he explained inUSA Today. In track, its just you.

Johnson was recruited from Dallas Skyline High by Baylor University track coach Clyde Hart. Hart thought that Johnson, with his stable background, good grades, and solid maturity, would add leadership to relay teams. Michael was not that big of a recruit, to be quite honest, the coach recalled in thePhiladelphia Inquirer.Shortly after Johnson arrived on the Baylor campus, however, coach Hart began to see greater potential in the studious marketing major. In his first 200 meter race, Johnson broke the Baylor record with a 20.41. Three years later, coming off injuries, he won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) indoor championship in the 200 meter sprint, setting an American record. In 1990, the same year that he earned a bachelors degree in accounting and marketing, Johnson became the top-ranked runner in both the 200 meter and 400 meter sprints. He was the first man ever to hold the dual top ranking for those two events.

In 1990 Johnson embarked on a professional track career. Although track and field competitions receive minimal attention in America, they are extremely popular in Europe and Asia, and it was there that Johnson became a star. He was virtually unbeatable in the 400 meter sprint, and he won the world championship in the 200 meter in 1991, beating the field by .33 seconds. As for his lack of renown in America, Johnson was able to be philosophical about it. When Im in Europe and everybody knows who I am, and everybody wants an autograph and wants to shake your hand, you sometimes worry about going out, he said in theNew York Times. Its kind of relaxing to come home and not have to worry about that. But its frustrating to know that Im the best in the world in two events, and there are guys in other sports who are good, but not the best, and they have $3 million contracts. Its kind of tough. But I look at the positive side. Ive traveled, seen the world. I could be a great writer and not make $3 million in a lifetime.

Disappointed in Barcelona

Johnson wanted to run in both the 400 meter and the 200 meter during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. The schedule did not permit it, and since no man had ever done it before, it was thought to be an impossible combination. Instead Johnson opted for the 200 meter, an all-out sprint that ideally suited him at the time. Upon arrival in Spain for the Games, he ate some tainted ham and developed food poisoning. Two weeks later, at the start of the Olympics, he had shed seven pounds and was still weak. In one of the stunning upsets of those Olympics, he finished sixth in his semifinal heat and did not make it to the final. It was very upsetting, Johnson admitted in theNew York Times.Even on a bad day, I dont think I would have done worse than a silver medal. But it was out of my control. He did recover in time to win a gold medal as part of the 4x400 relay team, but that was small consolation for the 200 meter loss. Quietly Johnson vowed to press on toward Atlanta in 1996.

The track and field community recognized that the 1992 Olympics were an aberration for Johnson. His celebrity continued in Europe, where he won the 1993 world championship in the 400 meter sprint. Johnson began to ask himself if it might be possible to dominate at both the 200 meterand the 400 meter distances. The two races were considered quite different: one required pure power and all-out speed, the other speed with strategy. Johnson was at ease in both, and he proved it by winning his first double at the 1995 world championships in Göteborg, Sweden. No man before him had ever achieved such a feat, and the accomplishment helped the ambitious Johnson to persuade the International Olympic Committee to change the track schedule so he could try for a repeat in Atlanta.

With the world championship win in the 200 and 400 meters, Johnson began to draw comparisons to famed Olympic hero Jesse Owens, a runner who made a farce of Adolf Hitlers Aryan supremacy theories at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Certainly the two sprinters share an unorthodox style: Johnson runs with his back ramrod straight and his head arched slightly back, taking short, piston-like strides that can hardly be followed with the naked eye. Everyone has a different style, but mine happens to be dramatically different than most sprinters, Johnson told theAtlanta Journal Weve measured stride length and frequency, and my style happens to be much more efficient than guys Im running against. Im not wasting time or motion. He added: For so long, people looked at me and wondered why I didnt run like everybody else. You cant change something that comes natural.

Also natural to Johnson was a certain reticence with press and fans. Always an independent athlete who prefers to train alone with a staff he pays himselfone of whom is his former Baylor coach, HartJohnson was perceived on the track circuit as a prickly loner. After his double world championship in 1995, Johnson took a hit from fellow American track star Carl Lewis, who told the press that the U.S. track team was boring. Lewis continued: The electricity is not there. Theres no buzz, no passionate missions. The one American theyre trying to build up, Michael Johnson? He doesnt have it. Hes not doing anything for them. Johnson made no reply to Lewiss remarks at the time, but in a pre-Olympic profile forGQ magazine, he addressed the issue at length. Theres only room for one person to be a track-and-field superstar, he explained. What came to light [with Lewis remark] was what everybody was already thinking about, but not talking aboutthe changing from Carl to Michael. Here I come, someone who runs one of the same events [the 200]. Its hard to let it go. And Carl gets confused. He thinks that what the fans can appreciate is [his] working on an album, coming out with his own line of clothes. Well, theyre not looking for flamboyance; theyre looking for someone whos genuine.

An Olympic Hero

Genuine Johnson might be, but he has never shied from the prospect of making money. As the 1996 Olympics approached, and the IOC agreed to rearrange the sprint schedule to allow him to try for double gold, Johnson cashed in on the product endorsement offers that prove so rewarding for athletes. In commercials he promoted Coca-Cola, Bausch & Lomb, and Nike. He hosted a weekly radio show in Dallas. And, perhaps most painfully, he began to sit for interviews with major magazines and newspapers. His wasthe major Olympic story, and he knew it. With the Olympics being in Atlanta, there are opportunities before, and there are going to be opportunities after, he told theAtlanta Journal.

What was revealed in the numerous profiles of Johnson was a man who thrived under nerve-shattering competition, a man whose cold confidence could strike fear into his opponents. Not only would he be trying to accomplish something no man had ever done before (one woman, Valerie Brisco-Hooks, earned double gold in the 200 and 400 in 1984), he was also responsible for an international body changing an entire schedule so he might have the chance. And a man who had once enjoyed near-total anonymity outside Texas was suddenly in the national eye. Did it bother Michael Johnson? I like that kind of pressure, he informed thePhiladelphia Daily News.I perform best that way.

Johnsons history-making try for gold in the two distance sprints was perhapsthe story of the 1996 Summer Olympics. Hyped relentlessly before the Games began, he did not disappoint when his events got under way. On Monday, July 29, 1996, he came to the 400 meter final sporting gold shoes and a thick gold chainand he won the final in an Olympic record-setting time in front of 83,000 cheering fans. Just three days later a second gold medal was hung around his neck as he beat his own world record in the 200 meter, finishing at 19.32 seconds.Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Diane Pucin noted that Johnsons victory in the 200 meter was like winning a swimming race by the length of the pool. No human being had ever run that fast. Its hard to imagine that one will again.

The normally self-contained Johnson was elated with his Olympic performance, especially since he had been so disappointed at the 1992 Summer Games. Tears ran from his eyes as the national anthem played at his medal ceremony. He shared the joy with his family and his longtime coach. Johnson, who lives in Dallas and Waco, Texas, has hinted that he will remain active in track and field, perhaps returning to the Olympics in 2000. He realizes that his unprecedented victories mean more than just wealth and fame for himthey help to increase tracks popularity in America. Somehow I feel a responsibility, he told thePhiladelphia Daily News. As someone who has benefited from my status in track and field, I feel responsible to the sport, to do what I can do to raise the sport to the next level. Im trying to make this sport as big here as it is in Europe. Thats a tall order, but Michael Johnson might be just the man to fill it.


Atlanta Journal and Constitution,June 18, 1995, p. E10; June 30, 1995, p. D5; December 1, 1995, p. C7; February 26, 1996.

Chicago Tribune,June 2, 1991, p. C3; August 12, 1995, p. H1.

Daily News (New York), July 14,1996, special section, p. 4.

GQ,June 1996, pp. 169-177.

Los Angeles Times,July 19, 1995, p. C1.

New York Times,March 5, 1995; July 14, 1996, special section.

Philadelphia Daily News,June 13, 1996, pp. S1, S3.

Philadelphia Inquirer,July 14,1996, p. C1; August 2, 1996, pp. 1,9.

USA Today,August 4, 1992, p. E4.

Washington Post,February 23, 1996, p. Fl.

Mark Kram

Johnson, Michael

views updated May 08 2018

Michael Johnson


American track and field athlete

The first man ever to win both 200-meter and 400-meter dashes at the same world championship, Michael Johnson is considered by many the greatest combined 200/400 sprinter who ever lived. One of the most colorful competitors at the Summer Olympic Games of 1992, 1996, and 2000, Johnson captured a total of five gold medals in Olympic competition, as well as nine gold medals at International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) world championships. Before he retired from competition in September 2001, Johnson had been ranked number one in the 400-meter ten times and number one in the 200-meter five times by Track & Field News. In announcing his retirement after the 2001 Goodwill Games in Brisbane, Australia, Johnson told reporters: "I will miss the sport because it's been such a big part of my life. I am a little sad that this year is going to end because I have had a great time. But I'm looking forward to retirement."

Born in Dallas

He was born Michael Duane Johnson in Dallas, Texas, on September 13, 1967. The youngest child of Paul, a truck driver, and Ruby Johnson, an elementary school teacher, he grew up in a stable family environment in Dallas. Johnson, like his four older siblings, showed an early interest in sports, but he clearly leaned toward running and shunned such contact sports as football and basketball. Of his attraction to running, he later told USA Today : "I don't like depending on anyone for anything in life. In track, it's just you." Although sports played an important role in Johnson's childhood, he also devoted a good deal of time and energy to his academic studies, attending classes for gifted children. As a boy, he wore black, horn-rimmed glasses that brought taunts of "nerd" from some of his classmates. As much as he loved running, his boyhood goal was to become an architect.

He first began to compete in track as a teenager, and although he clearly enjoyed it, he was hardly an overnight star. As he told Boy's Life, "I first competed in track at Atwell Junior High in Dallas, and then just because it was something fun to do. I ran the 200 and the sprint relay, but I wasn't outstanding and had no big plans for high school track." In fact, Johnson, opting to concentrate on his studies, didn't compete at all during his first two years at Skyline High School. As a junior he tried out and landed a spot on the school's track team. He got some good advice from high school coach Joel Ezar, who urged Johnson to just relax and enjoy running. "Track is a big sport in Texas, but he [Ezar] didn't put pressure on me," Johnson told Boy's Life. "I ran the 200 and both relays [400 and 1,600]. I never went to a meet intent on running great times and trying to impress college coaches and get a scholarship. As a result, I never felt burned out." As a senior, Johnson won the district title in the 200-meter dash but lost at the state meet.

Runs Track for Baylor

Despiteor perhaps because ofhis relaxed approach to competition, Johnson was recruited by coach Clyde Hart to run track for Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Hart was particularly taken by Johnson's stable upbringing, good grades, and solid maturity, qualities he felt would make the runner a natural leader on Baylor's relay teams. However, it was not long before he was able to see even greater potential in Johnson. In his very first 200-meter race at Baylor, Johnson broke the school record with a time of 20.41 seconds. By the time he graduated from Baylor with a bachelor's degree in accounting and marketing in 1990, Johnson had become the top-ranked runner in both the 200- and 400-meter sprints, the first man ever to hold a dual top ranking in both these events.

Johnson began running track professionally shortly after his graduation from Baylor. He quickly made a name for himself in track circles. In the 400-meter sprint, he was virtually unbeatable, and in the 200-meter he won the world championship in 1991, beating the field by a third of a second. Outside the Olympics, Americans pay only minimal attention to track and field events and the sport's leading competitors. As a result, Johnson first attained stardom among European and Asian fans of the sport. Back home he was far from being a household name. Discussing his low profile in America, Johnson told the New York Times : "When I'm in Europe and everybody knows who I am, and everybody wants an autograph and wants to shake your hand, you sometimes worry about going out. It's kind of relaxing to come home and not have to worry about that. But it's frustrating to know that I'm the best in the world in two events, and there are guys in other sports who are good but not the best, and they have $3 million contracts. It's kind of tough. But I look at the positive side. I've traveled, seen the world. I could be a great writer and not make $3 million in a lifetime."

Waylaid by Illness in 1992

Looking ahead to the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, Johnson planned to compete in both the 200- and 400-meter sprints. On the basis of Johnson's record during his first two years of professional competition, he looked like a likely winner in both events. Traveling to Spain in advance of the Olympics, he ate some tainted ham and developed a severe case of food poisoning. By the time his events rolled around, he had shaken off the symptoms of the illness but remained weakened. As a result, he failed to qualify for the finals in either event, although he did win a gold medal as a member of the U.S. 4×400 relay team that set a new world record time of two minutes, 55.74 seconds. Bitterly disappointed by the failure to qualify for his two main individual events, Johnson vowed to soldier on toward Atlanta.

As a short-range goal, Johnson set his sights on winning the 400-meter sprint at the 1993 IAAF World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany. In a series of qualifying races leading up to Stuttgart, he blew away the competition. At the USA/Mobil Track and Field Championships, Johnson, facing off against such keen competitors as world record holder Butch Reynolds and 1992 Olympic gold medalist Quincy Watts, won the race in a personal record time of 43.74 seconds. He followed up this win with victories at major competitions in Oslo, Gateshead, and Zurich. At Stuttgart, Johnson, the favorite, won the 400 sprint with a championship record time of 43.65 seconds. At the 1994 Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia, Johnson took the gold medal in the 400-meter sprint, and for the year as a whole he won all of his 400-meter events. In 1995, he became the first athlete in history to win both the 200- and 400-meter sprints at the U.S. National Championships. Not long thereafter, Johnson was the first man ever to win the world title in both events.

Wins Both Events at Atlanta

Johnson was primed and ready when the Atlanta Summer Olympic Games opened in July 1996. He raced to victory in the 400-meter sprint with a new Olympic record time of 43.49 seconds. Only three days later, he set a new world record time of 19.32 seconds in winning the 200-meter sprint. The victories were particularly sweet for Johnson, who four years earlier had been waylaid by illness on his race for gold in the same events at Barcelona. Never before had a man won gold in both events at the same Olympics. (The only woman to win gold in both the 200- and 400-meter sprints was Valerie Brisco-Hooks , who accomplished the feat at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.) Of his remarkable performance, Johnson told the Olympian : "I've always wanted to bring the two events together in a way that nobody else had ever done; this sums up what my career is about." In a bold display of confidence, Johnson ran both events in gold-colored running shoes and sported a thick gold chain around his neck.


1967Born September 13 in Dallas, Texas
1986Graduates from Skyline High School in Dallas
1990Receives bachelor's degree in accounting and marketing from Baylor University
1998Marries Kerry Doyen on October 3
2000Becomes a father with birth of a son, Sebastian, in May
2001Announces retirement from competition

Related Biography: Track and Field Coach Clyde Hart

Clyde Hart, the longtime track and field coach at Baylor University, was first attracted to Michael Johnson by the high school sprinter's stability and maturity, qualities he thought would make Johnson a valuable addition to Baylor's 4×400 relay team. It was only after Johnson had begun training at Baylor that Hart began to see that the young runner had far more potential than the coach had first realized. Hart was particularly impressed by the times Johnson was posting in both the 200- and 400-meter sprints.

Johnson's decision to run both the 200- and 400-meter sprints in competition was largely an outgrowth of a training program Hart had developed for Johnson during his junior and senior years at Baylor. The program was designed to help the runner avoid leg problems that had plagued him during the 1989 track season and called for him to run mainly relays during the spring of 1990. "Running both events fit perfectly with our program," Hart said. "We feel that strength is synonymous with speedif you're strong, then you can run fast." And under Hart's guidance, Johnson certainly learned to run fast.

A native of Arkansas, Hart was an accomplished sprinter at Hot Springs High School, taking the state title in the 100-yard dash in 1951. He attended Baylor on a full scholarship, competing for the Baylor Bears all four years of his college career. After graduating he coached high school track in Little Rock from 1957 through 1963. In 1963 he returned to his college alma mater as coach of the track and field team. He has occupied that job for four decades.

Shortly after his impressive win at Atlanta, Johnson published a motivational book titled Slaying the Dragon: How to Turn Your Small Steps to Great Feats, and toured extensively in late 1996 to promote it. In recognition of Johnson's accomplishment in winning both the 200- and 400-meter sprints, the U.S. Olympic Committee named Johnson Sportsman of the Year for 1996, an honor he'd previously won in both 1993 and 1995. The IAAF named him Legend Athlete of the Year for 1996, and the Amateur Athletic Union gave him its 76th annual James E. Sullivan Memorial Award. Things also improved financially for Johnson when he was signed by Nike to a six-year, $12 million endorsement deal.

Pulls Up Lame in Race with Bailey

Something of a shadow was cast across Johnson's otherwise sterling reputation by his participation in a privately organized 150-meter race against Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey . The race, held at Toronto's SkyDome in 1997, ostensibly was staged to find out who was the "world's fastest man." Favored three to one by bettors, Johnson shocked everyone when he pulled up lame halfway through the run as Bailey raced past him. Johnson grabbed his left thigh and walked to the finish line. Opponent Bailey later called Johnson a "coward," and the media flooded Johnson with questions about whether he had purposely thrown the race. The American sprinter explained that he'd suffered an intense cramp, forcing him to drop out of the race. An x-ray later confirmed that Johnson had torn his quadriceps muscle. This was just the beginning of a string of physical problems for Johnson, who also suffered problems with his left hamstring and other troubles associated with a skeletal imbalance that forced his spine into misalignment. Despite these leg problems, he continued to train.

In 1998 Johnson was a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. 4×400 relay team at the Goodwill Games in New York City. During his leg of the relay, he ran the fastest 400-meter sprint of the year at 43.30 seconds. The following year, at the IAAF World Track and Field Championships in Seville, Spain, Johnson won the 400-meter sprint with a new world record time of 43.18 seconds. At the 2000 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Sacramento, a hamstring cramp forced Johnson out of competition in the 200-meter sprint. He did, however, qualify for the 400-meter, his signature event. At Sydney, he successfully defended his Olympic title in the 400-meter sprint and also won gold as a member of the U.S. 400×4 relay team, bringing the total of his Olympic gold medals to five. In winning the individual 400-meter sprint at Sydney, Johnson became the first sprinter in history to win consecutive gold medals in the event.

Johnson wrapped up his brilliant running career with another gold medal as a member of the winning 4×400 relay team at the 2001 Goodwill Games in Brisbane, Australia. Although he had maintained a home in Texas for most of his professional career, Johnson in the fall of 2001 put his Dallas home on the market and moved to Mill Valley, California, a suburb of San Francisco in nearby Marin County. There he lives with wife Kerry and their son, Sebastian, born in May 2000. Interviewed in April 2002 by Runners World Daily, Johnson's longtime coach, Clyde Hart, was asked what the sprinter was doing now that he'd retired. "He's keeping busy and enjoying retirement," Hart replied. "I think he retired at the right time in his career." Asked if he thought there was any chance that Johnson might return to running, Hart said, "No, Michael is not going to do that. That decision was made and there's no looking back. That's the kind of guy he is." Although it seems unlikely Johnson will ever run competitively again, he has a glorious record to reflect upon for the rest of his life.


Address: Michael Johnson, c/o IMG Speakers, 825 7th Ave., New York, NY 10019.

Awards and Accomplishments

1989NCCA 200-meter indoor championship
1990Named Male Athlete of the Year by Track & Field News
1991Gold medal in 200-meter sprint at IAAF world championships
1992Gold medal as member of U.S. 4×400 relay team at Olympics in Barcelona
1993Gold medal in 400-meter sprint at IAAF world championships
1993-94U.S. Track Athlete of the Year
1995Gold medals in 200- and 400-meter sprints at IAAF world championships
1996Gold medals in 200- and 400-meter sprints at Olympics in Atlanta
1996Named Get Smart Player of the Year by Sport magazine
1996Named Legend Athlete of the Year by IAAF
1997Gold medals in 400-meter sprint and 4×400 relay at IAAF world championships
1998Gold medal in 4×400 relay at IAAF world championships
1999Gold medals in 400-meter sprint and 4×400 relay at IAAF world championships
2000Gold medals in 400-meter sprint and 4×400 relay at Olympics in Sydney


(With Jess Walter) Slaying the Dragon: How to Turn Your Small Steps to Great Feats, HarperCollins, 1996.



"Michael Johnson." Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 13. Detroit: Gale Group, 1996.

"Michael Johnson." Newsmakers 2000, Issue 1. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000.

"Michael Johnson." Sports Stars, Series 1-4. UXL, 1994-1998.

"Michael Johnson." St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, five volumes. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.


"Champion and Family." Jet (September 24, 2001): 50.


"Baylor Track and Field Coach Clyde Hart Honored." (January 29, 2003).

"Clyde Hart." Runner's World.,1300,1-0-0-1954-1-0-P,00.html (January 29, 2003).

"Clyde Hart: Profile." (January 29, 2003).

"Johnson, Michael." Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2002. (January 29, 2003).

"Michael Johnson." USA Track & Field. (January 29, 2003).

"More Magic Might Await Michael Johnson." SLAM! Track. (January 29, 2003).

"Olympic Spirit: Michael Johnson." IMG Speakers. (January 29, 2003).

Sketch by Don Amerman

Johnson, Michael

views updated May 21 2018

JOHNSON, Michael

(b. 13 September 1967 in Dallas, Texas), track and field short-distance runner who was considered the fastest man in the world after his world record–shattering 200-meter and 400-meter races in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Johnson was the youngest of five children of Paul Johnson, Sr., a truck driver, and Ruby Johnson, an elementary school teacher. The Johnsons enjoyed a comfortable, though not affluent, lifestyle in Dallas and emphasized education and religion in their family life. Throughout his primary and secondary schooling, Johnson took classes for the gifted, excelling in academics. At Skyline High School in Dallas, Johnson participated in sports, playing football in junior high and running track all through junior and senior high. Upon his graduation in 1986 he was recruited by several colleges and chose to attend Baylor University, an hour's drive south in Waco, Texas, because of its strong Baptist heritage and its track and field coach, Clyde Hart.

Hart and Johnson immediately began an intense training regimen, which often culminated in Johnson's physical and mental exhaustion after practice. However, Johnson never once missed a scheduled day of training with Hart. Once the coach canceled practice due to bad weather; the team took the afternoon off, and Hart worked at his office, occasionally glancing out at the stormy weather pounding the track. He noticed a figure sprinting laps and discovered Johnson running his usual routine. Hart questioned the athlete, only to have Johnson reply that you never know when you might have to compete in the rain.

Johnson continued to excel in academics and majored in business, reasoning that he would need a career after his racing days were behind him. He ran competitively, winning five National Collegiate Athletic Association titles in the 200-meter dash and the 1,600-meter relay. Several of his school records still stand at Baylor, including his time of 20.41 seconds in the 200-meter dash in his first collegiate meet (in 1990, Johnson reset this record at a meet in Edinburgh, Scotland, with a time of 19.85). The following year, in 1988, he placed seventh in the 400-meter heats at the Olympic trials. That same year he broke his fibula in the NCAA Outdoor 200-meter race. In spite of his broken leg, Track and Field News ranked Johnson seventh overall in the United States. The next year, 1989, Johnson won the NCAA Indoor 200 meters and placed second in the 400 meters. In his senior year, he won the 400-meter USA Indoors and the 200-meter USA Indoors and Outdoors.

Johnson graduated from Baylor in 1990 with a degree in business and opted to continue training with Hart. The two had developed not only Johnson's peculiar upright running style—characterized by a perfectly straight back, thrown-out shoulders, and pounding arms and legs moving in synchronicity—but also his "danger zone" stare and the tunnel vision that helped him focus on both the track and professional athletic advancement.

Johnson won a gold medal in at the World Championships in 1991 in the 200 meters with a time of 20.01 into a headwind; his margin of 0.33 seconds was the largest in that race since Jesse Owens's in 1936. He repeated his wins at the USA Indoor and Outdoor 400 meters and 200 meters and was ranked the best in the world at both of those events by Track and Field News. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Johnson suffered a bout of food poisoning, placing only sixth in the 200-meter semifinals, but still managed to compete on the U.S. gold medal–winning 4 × 400–meter relay team. His ranking dropped to third and fifth in the world in the 200 meters and 400 meters, but rebounded to first the following year for the 400 meter. At the World Championships Johnson anchored the gold medal–winning 4 × 400–meter relay with the fastest relay leg in history. By 1995 Johnson had been ranked the fastest runner in the world nine times since 1990 in either the 400 meters and the 200 meters. Between 1989 and 1997 he had fifty-eight wins in the 400 meters.

He was untouchable, although his racing rivals were vocal in their dismissal of his talents. Carl Lewis, the running champion of the 1980s, publicly declaring that Johnson would not make the 1992 Olympic team. Johnson lashed back, stating that Lewis was trying to be the premier athlete in track and field and that he should "step down from there." Johnson announced his arrival at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics with a pair of sparkling gold Nike running shoes, specially designed for his finals. The eyes of the world were focused on his flying feet as he won gold in the 400 meters in 43.49 seconds, an Olympic record. He stunned the world later by winning the 200 meters in a world record–shattering 19.32 seconds. Of that dash, Johnson said, "I don't think that I can't break 19.32, because I know that race wasn't perfect." Though not perfect in his own eyes, Johnson nonetheless became the first man to win both the 200 meters and the 400 meters in the same Olympics.

Johnson raced during the next four years in anticipation of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, setting new world records as he ran. Track and Fields News continued to rank him first in the world in the 400 meters. In 1997 Johnson and the Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey engaged in a much-publicized 150-meter race, the winner of which would be declared the fastest man on Earth, but Johnson pulled up injured during the race. He was injured again a year later in the 2000 Olympic trials in the 200 meters and did not compete in that event. Johnson won another two gold medals, however, in the 400 meters and as the fourth leg in the 4 × 400–meter relay. At the end of that year he was again ranked first in the world in the 400 meters. Though seemingly invincible on the racetrack, Johnson announced plans to retire in 2001.

Johnson lives in Will Valley, California, with his wife, Kerry Doyen, whom he married on 3 October 1998, and their son.

Recognition of Johnson's excellence in track and field is often eclipsed in media stories by discussion of his intense devotion to his craft and of his unique upright running style. Nevertheless, Johnson's jaw-dropping performance at the Atlanta Olympics in the 200 meters will be remembered for years to come, and he is inarguably the greatest 400-meter runner who ever lived. Johnson was the first man to win both those races in the same Olympics and the first to successfully defend his 400 meters in the next. He also ran on two gold-medal 4 × 400–meter Olympic relay teams and won multiple world and U.S. championships. Along with Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis, Johnson will be marked as one of the twentieth century's greatest runners.

Johnson wrote Slaying the Dragon (1996), which combined business advice with autobiographical details about his early childhood, college life, and adult training. Two informative databases are USA Track & Field (2000) and Cool Running (2000). The former gives a detailed history of his career highlights; the latter focuses on his personality. Todd Copeland's "Frequent Flier" profile in the Baylor Line (summer 2000) offers insights into Johnson's perceptions of his wins and losses.

Judith A. Parker

Johnson, Michael

views updated May 23 2018

Johnson, Michael (1967– ) US track athlete. Johnson became 200m world champion (1991), but was forced to retire from the 1992 Olympics. He was 200m and 400m world champion (1995). At the 1996 Olympics, he became the first man in Olympic history to win 200m and 400m gold medals. he successfully defended his 400m title at the 2000 Olympics.

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Michael Johnson

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