This is the 20-year anniversary of track superstar Michael Johnson winning gold medals in the 200 and 400 meters at the Olympics in 1996 in record-breaking fashion.
The fact that the Olympics that year were held in Atlanta was even more meaningful for Johnson, who spoke Tuesday at a United Way luncheon at the Crescent Hotel.
“That was a great time,” Johnson said. “I was fortunate to have that time and that performance take place in the Olympics here in the U.S., which was significant to me being an American athlete.
“Most athletes, no matter how many Olympics you make, won’t get an opportunity to participant in an Olympics on their home country soil.”
And Johnson made sure he put on a special performance in ’96.
Not only did the Dallas Skyline High School graduate become the first male athlete to win the 200 and 400 meters in the same Olympics, but he also did so while wearing flashy gold Nike track shoes that became the talk around the world.
That was a great time. I was fortunate to have that time and that performance take place in the Olympics here in the U.S., which was significant to me being an American athlete. Most athletes, no matter how many Olympics you make, won’t get an opportunity to participant in an Olympics on their home country soil.
“The thing about the gold shoes was it was a project that I worked on with Nike for about a year-and-a-half, and it was all about the technology of the shoe, to make it a shoe that worked specifically for what I was looking for, how I felt like the shoe would help me to perform best, how my foot interacted with the track,” Johnson said. “And then the color [of the shoe] came at the very end.
“I was feeling very confident, I knew that all year we had been talking about we’re going for the gold, that’s the only option, and so it was just fitting that the shoes were gold. No silver shoes.”
Johnson won the 200 meters at the Atlanta Olympics in a world record time of 19.32 seconds, and he won the 400 meters in an Olympic record time of 43.49.
Shortly thereafter, Johnson started appearing in Nike-sponsored ads portraying him as the fastest man in the world. It’s a title that most associate with being the most valuable player in his sport.
It’s going to be 20 years in July, and in some ways I look at it and I think, ‘God, it doesn’t seem like it was that long.’ And sometimes it seems like that was eons ago.
“The thing that I’m most proud of is if you look at the list of folks over the last century who have held that title of the fastest man in the world — your Bob Hayes, your Jesse Owens, your Carl Lewis, and now Usain Bolt — I’m the only one that was not a 100-meter sprinter,” Johnson said. “I got that title by virtue of the fact that I ran in terms of miles per hour faster than anyone had ever run before.”
In addition to Johnson’s heroics, the Atlanta Olympics are best remembered for the bombing that occurred in Centennial Olympic Park, which killed one person and injured 111. How close was Johnson to the bombing site?
“I was right across the street, actually,” the former Baylor sprinter said. “This was the night before my first race — my preliminary round of the 400 meters.
“I only woke up because my phone kept ringing and it was my brother calling asking me if I was OK. I said, ‘Yes, I’m in bed, what’s going on?’ And he told me that there had been this bombing across the street, and I was obviously very disappointed.”
Now, 48 years old, Johnson obviously isn’t disappointed about an illustrious track career that included four Olympic gold medals and eight gold medals from the World Championships. For a man who knows speed, even Johnson is stunned at how fast time has gone by.
“It’s going to be 20 years in July, and in some ways I look at it and I think, ‘God, it doesn’t seem like it was that long,’ ” Johnson said. “And sometimes it seems like that was eons ago.”