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Men's 200 Meters Final, Track and Field, Atlanta 1996

posted June 30, 2008

Despite coming away with a gold medal for his leg in the world-record-setting 4x400 relay, the 1992 Barcelona games were a disappointment for Michael Johnson. The man with the top times in the world that year in both the 200 meter and 400 meter distances, he was limited by unfavorable scheduling to competing in only one of the two (he chose 200 meters), and then food poisoning weakened him enough that he was only able to get as far as the semifinals in that event. To say that he wanted to deliver a performance in Atlanta four years later that would erase the bitter memories of Barcelona would be an understatement.

Prior to the games Johnson got a major break: the powers that be agreed to schedule the 200 and 400 races so that he could compete in both this time. If he could pull off the double, it would be an historic first, since no man had ever accomplished the feat in any previous Olympics. Things got even better at the Olympic Trials, when Michael not only won both events, but set a new world record in the 200, dropping it from 19.72 to 19.66, a fairly large margin for a sprint record to be broken by.

So the expectations for Michael Johnson were as high as they could be as the Track and Field competition got underway in Atlanta. Michael sailed through the heats of the 400, then won the final easily. He failed to break the world record, which was a slight disappointment, but the gold medal was far and away the most important thing.

Then it was on to the 200. Again, he won his heats without trouble, and qualified for the final. This would be his last individual race of the games, and he wanted to put a big exclamation point on his achievements of that week. Since he had failed to break the world record in the 400, he wanted to do it that much more in the 200. So he was primed to run the race of his life. He came off the turn with the lead, and poured it on down the stretch. As he crossed the finish line, and his time was posted, NBC announcer Craig Masback described the results of the race: "A new world record! He set a world record! He DESTROYS his old record!" And so he had. Suddenly the .06 margin from the trials no longer seemed so impressive, as Michael had now lowered the 200 meters world record by a phenomenal, unheard of .34 seconds, to 19.32. He was justifiably jubilant in his post-race celebrations, since he had not only completed the unprecedented 200-400 double, but had broken the 200 meters record by so much that the record might never be broken again. The pain of Barcelona had been eradicated forever.

There are several postscripts to this story. First, Michael eventually did break the world record in the 400 meters as well, three years later, with a time of 43.18, becoming the first man ever to hold the world record for 200 and 400 meters at the same time - a second historic double. He also repeated his 400 meters gold at the 2000 Sydney games, becoming the first man ever to win the race at two different Olympics - historic double number three! Finally, as of this writing in late June 2008, the second fastest 200 meters ever run is by American Sprinter Tyson Gay, who ran 19.62 in 2007. So twelve years later, no one has yet come within .30 seconds of Michael Johnson's incredible 1996 gold medal victory in Atlanta.

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