FAIRFAX, Va. -- On the track, Michael Johnson is the only man familiar with the territory he's exploring.
Off it, Johnson is engaged in a battle as old as the sport itself.
Johnson made his only U.S. appearance of the indoor season yesterday, jumping Steve Lewis off the final turn to set a meet record of 45.81 seconds in the 400 meters at the Mobil Invitational at George Mason University.
As a representative of sprinters on the Athletes Advisory Committee that reports to USA Track and Field, Johnson is well versed on the squabble between athletes and the sport's national governing body. It's a fight dating to the ancient Greeks: Top Americans want appearance money for the national indoor championships at the Georgia Dome on March 5, but none is coming.
"USA Track and Field has said they can't afford to pay the athletes," Johnson said, "but I refuse to believe that [Noureddine] Morceli comes all the way over here and doesn't get paid."
Morceli set a world record in the mile last summer. The Algerian might be coming to Atlanta for a payday, but Johnson is off to Japan and England, where his talents are better appreciated.
The 26-year-old from Dallas is a unique talent, known for his unorthodox low knee lift and incredible turnover. He is the only man to run under 20 seconds (19.79 at the 1992 Olympic trials) in the 200 and under 44 (43.65 at last summer's world championships) in the 400. He capped the 1993 worlds with the fastest 4 x 400 relay split in history, 42.94.
There are no major international championships this year, so Johnson will tinker with adding another distinction to his resume: breaking 10.00 in the 100.
"My main goal this year is to have some fun and experiment with some new events," said Johnson, who last May lowered his 100 best to 10.12. "I've had some tough seasons back-to-back [three actually, 1991 to 1993], and I don't want this year to be like that."
The USA indoor championships aren't on Johnson's calendar, but they're circled on Tony Barton's.
A 24-year-old who prepped at Milford Mill High, Barton used to help George Mason during its annual IC4A bid by cleaning up in the jumps, and now he's doing it for himself on the Mobil Grand Prix circuit. Barton was second in the high jump yesterday -- he and Randy Jenkins topped 7 feet, 4 1/2 inches -- and with Marcus O'Sullivan withdrawing from the mile, Barton trimmed the latter's lead in the overall Grand Prix standings to 55-51.
With the overall indoor Grand Prix champion earning $40,000 and the runner-up $25,000, Barton will try to pick up points in the long and triple jumps at the USA indoor championships, the last stop on the circuit. He won the high jump at the Millrose Games Friday, and on Jan. 22 he won the long jump at the USAir Invitational in Johnson City, Tenn.
Barton reached his first major international championship last summer, as he placed eighth in the worlds high jump at Stuttgart. Track and Field News ranked him ninth in the world in the high jump, with a seasonal best of 7-7, and seventh in the United States in the long jump, in which he improved his personal best to 26-7 3/4 .
"Nobody had me doing the long jump seriously when I was here," said Barton, who still trains at George Mason. "I'm still learning the event."
O'Sullivan's absence didn't detract from the mile, in which Scotland's David Strang finished in 3 minutes, 57.38 seconds to hold off Kenyan Moses Tiptanui and five others who broke four minutes.
The women's mile featured a nifty move by Suzy Hamilton on 1,500 Olympic and world champion Hassiba Boulmerka of Algeria. With 350 meters to go, Hamilton blew by Boulmerka. Unfortunately for Hamilton, she thought there were only 150 left, and the former Wisconsin star stopped with a lap to go.
"I don't have anyone to blame but myself," said Hamilton.
Boulmerka, who was poised five meters behind Hamilton, ready to pounce, eased to victory in 4:28.64. The women's hurdles featured another world champion, and Gail Devers' time of 7.85 threatened Jackie Joyner-Kersee's U.S. record of 7.81.