With Rio 2016 about to begin, we ask one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time what makes the difference between gold and silver. By Shaun McGuckian
As runners stared down the rust-red track, crackling under the floodlights of the Centennial Olympic Stadium, one competitor rocked from side to side.
It was the 200m final at Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Games and although eight pairs of shoes lined up on the start line, truthfully only one set counted: those belonging to Michael Johnson.
The world’s eyes collectively rested on a pair of shimmering gold Nikes. Could the man wearing them run faster than his rivals in both the 200m and 400m, and in doing so create history?
For 11 decades of the Games no male runner had ever won both these races in a major meet. But, with the 400m gold already secured, Johnson had a chance. As he settled into the starting blocks, 85,000 spectators rose in silent unison.
Fast-forward 20 years, and with a new Games on the horizon, a new name is on the world’s lips, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, looking to add to his six Olympic golds in the 100m, 200m and 100m relay at Rio 2016. Far from displaying the rivalry one would assume natural at the mention of his would-be successor, the 48-year-old Johnson lights up when discussing today’s ‘world’s fastest man’.
“This year it will be a very close race. I think we’ve seen the best of Bolt – in my eyes he’s not going to break any more records – but he proved over this last year that he can be an amazing competitor. Even when others are right there and he’s not at his absolute best, he can win races, and that’s impressive.”
I remember feeling that I was going to be “the man” at these Games
Chatting in the lobby of the Jumeirah Mina A’Salam hotel, the former sprinter is in the UAE ahead of the 2016 Dubai World Cup. But the trip is not just for leisure; Johnson is the founder of his own athletic consultancy firm, Michael Johnson Performance [MJP], and is exploring opportunities in the Middle East. Rather than the more traditional coaching route that many athletes take, MJP works with individuals, sports teams, national Olympic committees and governments to assess athletes and provide services designed to help them achieve their peak potential.
“We are focused on the fundamentals of athleticism and helping that athlete become the best they possibly can,” he states.
Johnson has avoided the trackside-coaching role, preferring instead to delve into the business aspect of sport. He believes his best work is undertaken behind the scenes, establishing best practices and creating innovative methods to maximise potential. It is a service he hopes to soon bring to the Middle East.
“We’re not in the business of going into places and telling people what they need,” he says. “We’re more of a support resource to organisations who have the desire to get the best from their athletes.
“The UAE is interesting as there is a real will to develop athletes here, and to help them make the small gains that make the difference between gold and silver, champion or second place. When that desire is there then we can help.”
In his 2016 book Peak: Secrets From The New Science Of Expertise, K Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, explores how humans convert such desire into results.
Widely recognised as one of the world’s leading researchers on expertise, whose work predated theories such as Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000-hour rule’, he posits that any individual can acquire abilities previously viewed as only obtainable with the right kind of genetic talent. All that’s needed is “well designed, specific goals” and “targeted improvement”.
He argues that to make the gains that separate, say, gold and silver medal winners you need feedback that instructs you on what type of adjustments you should make. “Any time you can focus your performance on improving just one aspect,” he says, “is the most effective way of improving overall.”
Ericsson advocates something he labels “deliberate practice”. “To try things just beyond a student’s current abilities,” he writes, “it demands near maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.”
Any time you can focus your performance on improving just one aspect is the most effective way of improving overall
This work is something that Johnson intimately recognises from his own life and transmits through MJP.
One of five children, born to a truck driver and an elementary school teacher, the bespectacled Johnson was not regarded as a natural runner. In fact, his style caused amusement more than it did admiration. One journalist cruelly jibed that he ran “like a duck”.
When he was recruited for his university track team in Texas, coach Clyde Hart recalls, “Michael was a good student, he came from a good, solid family, so I thought he would be a good, mature person to have on a team. And I thought he could help us on some relays.
“And that’s about it. Michael was not that big of a recruit, to be quite honest.’’
Johnson calls himself the “ultimate realist”. He knew he would have to combine his steely perfectionism with a vast amount of practice if he was to realise his expectations.
“It wasn’t until I had just started my professional career that I started to understand the effort that would be required from me, and that still doesn’t happen overnight. A lightbulb goes off, but it’s a process that requires data input from both good and bad performances before you can fully grasp what works and what doesn’t.
“I was never happy with poor performances, but the value I could gain from assessing them allowed me to improve,” he adds. “Being driven by not wanting to experience that feeling was a major incentive. The ultimate [aim] is to have balance between understanding and emotion.
“You don’t want losses to mean nothing to you, but neither do you want to overreact to them so that you can’t take anything from it.”
It was through this commitment that he became what Sports Illustrated’s Gary Smith described as “an arrow shaved of all superfluity…drawn and discharged with the barest expenditure of motion, an arrow streaming nowhere except to its target.”
Johnson is an athlete that the Games seem designed for; an alchemic mix of natural talent and sheer, unremitting dedication. The statistics illustrate his exceptional prowess: 58 consecutive final victories spread over eight years.
He was the first man to break both 44 seconds in the 400m and 20 seconds in the 200m. And, throughout the history of track, running 400m in under 44 seconds has been achieved only 62 times; Johnson accounts for over a third of those. Attempting to live up to (or even surpass) these achievements are the hundreds of track stars en route to Brazil this summer for Rio 2016.
Among those hopefuls, 30-year-old American Allyson Felix looks to be a kindred spirit to Johnson, seeking to win both the 200m and 400m in the women’s event (and, poetically, doing so on the 20th anniversary of Johnson's Atlanta victory).
The intense scrutiny that athletes such as Felix or Bolt will be subjected to this summer is something to which Johnson can relate. Yet he is as excited as the wider public when it comes to predictions and opinions of the athletes – a natural offshoot of his role as a commentator, perhaps – and has been known to voice frustration at Bolt’s famously laid-back approach to racing.
“It’s debatable whether [his attitude] gives him his best performance,” says Johnson. “Maybe his time could be even faster,” he wonders, displaying the same inquisitive perfectionism that drove his own career.
“There’s only one Olympics,” he adds. “This is where we really test ourselves. The great ones have a sense of understanding as to how to get the best from themselves: physically, mentally, emotionally. An understanding of how to pool that together and duplicate it on a consistent basis through their training and preparation, so that on the right day they are able to deliver their best performance.”
Rewind again to Atlanta 1996, where Johnson was the poster boy of the Games, the hopes of a nation riding on his gold arches. Four days earlier, a bomb attack shook the Olympic Park, killing one person and injuring 111 others. More than ever, the nation needed a symbol of hope. Johnson felt he could be that symbol.
“There were two household names in the history of track and field, Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis, and I was in position to be that third name,” he recalls. “I remember feeling that I was going to be ‘the man’ at these Games.”
The starter’s gun fired a puff of white smoke and the race erupted. Despite a slight stumble in the first few metres, by the time he reached the bend it was clear it was all over. “He’s going to win by miles!” one television commentator cried as Johnson, back ramrod-straight, accelerated over the line in an astonishing 19.32 seconds. A new record for the Games, and the world.
“This man surely is not human,” uttered the BBC’s David Coleman, his disbelief matched down on the track by Trinidadian bronze medallist Ato Boldon, who was stooped down bowing before Johnson in admiration.
“Nineteen-point-thirty two,” said Boldon afterwards. “That’s not a time. It sounds like my dad’s birth date.”