ATLANTA -- Last year, Michael Johnson petitioned himself into position to make Olympic history.
Last night, Johnson ran his way into Olympic lore.
The 28-year-old from Dallas not only became the first man to win both the 200 and 400 meters in the same Olympic competition, but he obliterated a quality field and shattered a world record he had broken here on the same track at Olympic Stadium in the U.S. track and field trials five weeks ago.
In a heart-stopping 19.32 seconds that saw him pull away from Frankie Fredericks of Namibia and Ato Boldon of Trinidad shortly after the turn in the 200-meter final, Johnson accomplished the ,, Olympic equivalent of what Bob Beamon did by breaking the long jump record at the 1968 Games in Mexico City by more than two feet.
At the trials in June, Johnson ran 19.66 seconds to break the longest-standing record in the sport, taking .06 of a second off the 17-year mark set by Italy's Pietro Mennea that also was accomplished in the altitude of Mexico City. At that time, it seemed incredible enough. Now it seems almost pedestrian.
"I got a lot more than I expected," said Johnson. "I would have lost all my money if I had bet on 19.3. I can't describe how it feels to break the world record by that much. I always thought a 19.4 or 19.5 was possible -- 19.3, that's unbelievable."
Said Fredericks, who beat Johnson last month in Oslo, Norway, to end a 21-race win streak and ran a blazing 19.68 seconds last night: "The record is going to stand as long as Pietro Mennea's, maybe longer. I don't think we'll get close to 19.3 for a long time."
Nobody got close to Johnson last night. As he finished, he turned to look at the clock and raised his arms in celebration.
Johnson didn't need any rarefied air since he seems to be in a different atmosphere than most. And consider this: It could have been even faster. The man in the sparkling gold shoes who got his body churning up to 23 mph made a startling revelation after the race: He stumbled out of the blocks and felt a twinge in his right hamstring 5 meters from the finish line. Johnson said the stumble cost him "several hundredths of a second."
"Once I got out and over the stumble by about my fourth step, I was pretty relaxed out to about 80 or 90 meters," he said. "From about 110 to 115 meters out, I just gave it all I had and I felt like I was in control of the race."
Over that stretch, Johnson showed why he had received all the hype in the past year and why even Boldon reversed his opinion that the Olympic 100-meter champion should be considered the fastest man in the world. Boldon finished third last night, the same position he was in when Canada's Donovan Bailey broke the world record in Saturday's 100-meter final.
"The fastest man alive is sitting to my left," Boldon, who in winning his second bronze set a national record in 19.80 seconds, said at a post-race news conference.
On an electric night that followed a rainy day in Georgia, a night that saw France's Marie-Jose Perec become only the second woman in Olympic history to win both the 200 and 400, a crowd of 82,884 was there to record history, their flashbulbs popping and their voices roaring. And Johnson was there to make sure his much-publicized petition, as well as the criticism he took for making it, was worth the trouble.
Johnson had petitioned the International Track Federation last fall in hopes of getting the schedule for the 200 and 400 changed. Originally, the finals of the 400 and the qualifying heats for the 200 were scheduled on the same day.
Asked what he felt going into the race, Johnson said, "Pressure. Just pressure. There's never been this much pressure on me in my entire life. Every day, I opened the newspaper or a magazine and read something about the double.
"People called, trying to take the pressure off -- and it only added to the pressure. When I got out there tonight, I was afraid I wasn't going to get that second gold medal. For me, that's good. I run better when I'm afraid."
The two gold medals here also helped erase the lingering memories from Barcelona, Spain. It was there that Johnson, recovering from a case of food poisoning, failed to reach the semifinals in the 200, the only individual race for which he had qualified.
"The two gold medals definitely make up for Barcelona," said Johnson, who'll likely win a third in the 4 x 400-meter relay. "Getting the record was a bonus on top of that."
What was most important to Johnson was his place in history, becoming the first man to do it. That is what has motivated Johnson since he came out of a Dallas high school as a recruiting afterthought and became a star at Baylor University. It has motivated Johnson for his professional career, as he became the first man to be ranked No. 1 in both the 200 and 400, the first to run under both 44 seconds in the 400 and under 19.6 in the 200.
"It's definitely the fact that I wanted to be the first man to do it," he said. "To me, the most important thing is to make history."
It left his longtime coach, Clyde Hart, shaking his head in amazement. "I never thought 19.3 was possible," he said. "It might be the greatest performance in track history."
There was no argument to that last night at Olympic Stadium.
Just a piece of future Olympic lore.
On the mark
Evolution of men's 200-meter world record since introduction of automatic timing:
Athlete ......... ...... Yr. ... Time
Tommie Smith, U.S. ..... '68 ... 19.83
Pietro Mennea, Italy ... '79 ... 19.72
Michael Johnson, U.S. .. '96* .. 19.66
Johnson ......... ..... '96** .. 19.32
*-June, U.S. Olympic trials
**-Last night, Olympics
Pub Date: 8/02/96