120 years, 120 stories (Part 51) : When his US teammates failed Michael Johnson


The Olympics might be over for another good four years – and for that matter if you really feel low on that account, we are here bringing to you another story worth sharing from our special Olympic Diaries commemorating the 120 years of the modern day games.

Today we will be discussing about an American track and field athlete Michael Johnson and his Olympic heroics and a special episode from his career when he had to pay the price for the felony of someone else.

Considered as one of the most consistent sprinters in history, Johnson came from very humble middle-class background. Born in Dallas, he won many a school-level competitions in his junior days. The legendary sprint king would have made his first appearance in the quadrennial event at Seoul in 1988 but for a fracture in the left leg that kept him out of contention in the US trials. As a result, Johnson had to wait for another four years to feature in the Olympics. By this time, the American had transformed himself into a force to reckon with – winning the 200 m race in the 1991 World Championships at Tokyo by quite a big margin close to three-tenth of a second.

In the 1992 Barcelona Games, Johnson would have performed better had he not been fallen victim to food poisoning just prior to the event. He could not qualify for the 200 m final as he suffered from weight loss. However, he was part of the US team of 4×400 m relay where they set a world record to bag the gold. This was the very first medal in his Olympic career so far and he was to win more of them in the subsequent Games.

In the 1995 World Championships, the American – billed in a Nike advertisement as the “world’s fastest man” – went on to win triple gold including an unprecedented wins in both 200m and 400m. The same sports apparel company sponsored his golden coloured spikes that Johnson sported at the Atlanta Olympics. And there was something unique (or dissimilar) in it – one of the pair was half a size smaller to make adjustments for the sprinter’s shorter left foot.

Coming to the track, Johnson was phenomenal; perhaps I would fall short on the vocabulary to give it a qualitative definition. Quantitatively, he won both his races convincingly, if not by a landslide margin.

The first male athlete to win both the 200 m and 400 m title at the same Olympics won the 400 m final in an Olympic record time and got the better of Britain’s Roger Black by almost a second! Not only that, he also followed it up with the 200 m in a world record time of 19.32 s – considering the fact that his leg was strapped up with tapes while he ran the event. However it meant that the third gold – which he earlier set his eye on in the form of his defending 4×400 m relay – went out of his grasp as he was sidelined from the US team. The team without Johnson nevertheless fared better and came out with the gold eventually.

Johnson went through a lot of injuries in the next couple of years, but however he recovered from them  time to time to pocket another two successive World titles in the 400 m. In 1999, Johnson clocked world record time of 43.18 s which stood for almost 17 years till it was surpassed at Rio de Janeiro last month by a South African sprinter named Wayde van Niekerk – the latter becoming a rare sprinter to win the event from an outside lane.

In his professional swansong, the American speedster went on to win another individual gold in the 400 m – thus becoming the oldest person at 33 years to win a race of less than 5 km. In the process, he also became the first man ever to defend his 400 m title at the Games. Not only that, Johnson later went on to team up with the Harrison brothers and his Worlds teammate Antonio Pettigrew to win the 4×400 m relay title for the fifth gold of his Olympic career.

Now this last race of Johnson made news years later when in 2004, the parent body IAAF declared that Jerome Young – one of the sprinters who had run for the US relay team in the heats – failed a dope test. As a result, the US team were striped of the gold which was subsequently reinstated the initial order. Another late twist came into the case when Pettigrew admitted before a court in 2008 to taking outlawed performance-booster. Johnson decided to return the gold medal and felt let down by his teammate. The controversy failed to die down with Pettigrew committing suicide in 2010 and the Harrisons too falling for doping offence.

Thus Johnson had to forego the fifth Olympic credential for whatsoever no proven fault of his own. The sadness of losing out on that perhaps can never be better summed up than by the legend’s own statement for the Telegraph four years back – “For eight years I was a five-time gold medalist. Then it was four-time. It’s not the same.”

Photo by The Puzzler