ATLANTA — He's a poor starter, by his own admission. When he reaches full speed he stands so upright he looks like a swayed-back drum major leading a band. But Michael Johnson is already one of history's great sprinters - and he could well be America's brightest track-and-field star at the coming Atlanta Olympic Games.
The muscular man in the special-made purple shoes provided a preview of his running power on Sunday when he set a 200-meter world record at the US Track and Field Trials. His competitors were world-class, champions all. When Johnson was done with them they looked like weekend joggers wearing radios and walking dogs.
"I was in shape and the conditions were good and I decided to go for it," said Johnson afterward, with understatement.
Just a few years ago, few would have guessed that the bespectacled runner would become one of the most dominant middle sprinters in the world. In high school, Johnson never won a state championship. In his teen years, he looked more bookish than athletic, donning a shirt and tie and carrying a briefcase to class rather than wearing the fashions of the day.
He received an athletic scholarship to go to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, but his coaches thought he would be just another member of the relay team.
Yet all this belied an incredible work ethic, and, it turns out, talent. Today Johnson seems poised to take the crown away from the long-time king of track and field, Carl Lewis, who holds eight gold medals.
In the US Track and Field trials on Sunday, Johnson gave spectators a preview of things to come.
Wearing his trademark superlight purple shoes (which he helped design) and a red track suit, Johnson obliterated the oldest record in track and field in the last event of the final day of the US Olympic selection meet, which ran June 14 to 23.
The track announcer told the crowd of 30,000 that the best was saved for last, and Johnson didn't disappoint, ripping off the 200 meters in 19.66 seconds, breaking the old mark of 19.72 seconds set by Italy's Pietro Mennea in 1979.
Among those he outran were world championship bronze medalist Jeff Williams, defending Olympic champion Mike Marsh, and Lewis, who made the US team in the long jump but fell short in his bid to make it to Atlanta in either the 100- or 200-meter sprints.
Despite the record temperatures in Atlanta, Johnson proved it was no sweat, in part because he's used to it. The sprinter splits his training time between his hometown of Dallas and Waco, where temperatures have been over 100 degrees.
Pete Cava, the press director for USA Track and Field, described the Mennea record as a "big, fat pumpkin" that was ripe for the picking. Somehow, though, it was like a cat with nine lives.
Even in Saturday's semifinal heats, the record proved incredibly elusive. Johnson zipped the distance in 19.70 and immediately began celebrating the apparent new world mark. Word quickly came, however, that the time would not count as a record because it was wind-aided, a disqualifying factor.
Afterward, Johnson said, "There were times I was getting frustrated getting close to the record, but that was something that gave me a better understanding of how world records work. That is, just because you're ready to run and go out there to run a fast race doesn't mean you always break them."
SOME believe that Mennea's old record was greatly aided by running in thin air of Mexico City at the 1979 World University Games. Then, too, suspicions exist that he might have cut the corners by crossing over the lane markers.
Despite such speculation, Johnson doesn't belittle the old record. "Anyone who holds a record that lasts that long you've got to have some respect for," he said Sunday. "Here it is 1996 and I'm breaking his world record that he set in 1979. Hopefully my record can stand as long as his did unless I break it."
And break it again he might now that he seems to be perfecting his starts. "I have a tendency coming out of the blocks to pop right up and get into that running position too soon," he says. "And when I do that I'm not really staying low for the first eight steps, which is important in making the transition to the running position."
Once smoothly into this posture, he feels his upright style gives him an edge despite its somewhat unorthodox look. "I'm more on top of myself and I have a lot more control," he says. This, he contends, helps make him a good curve runner and allows him to cut down on variations in stride length and knee lift during the race.
"For runners with much more forward lean," he says, "those things change dramatically from nonfatigue to fatigue. With me it doesn't change quite as dramatically, so I'm able to be stronger at the end of my race, which is the fatigue stage."
Besides making the Olympics in the 200, Johnson will also run the 400, which may actually be his stronger event. With his victory over world record-holder Butch Reynolds in the trials, Johnson increased his 400-meter winning streak to 53 straight finals, dating back to 1989.
If Johnson can "double" at the Games, he would make history with gold medals in the 200 and 400. Various runners have doubled at other distances, including Lewis in '84 and Jesse Owens in 1936.
A report circulated in Atlanta that Johnson is so dominant in the 400 that Britain's athletic federation intended to bar him from competing in a July 12 meet in London. The reason, supposedly, is that running against Johnson might be unduly demoralizing to British runners at this late stage in their Olympic preparations.