Black Excellence

28 DOBE- Day 26: King of the Track, Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson, black runners, black athletes, black history, black history month, black excellence

Sure, I ran track in high school. But I was not Michael Johnson. I was pretty good, but I wasn’t Michael Johnson good. I idolized Jackie Joyner-Kersee. I adored Jesse Owens….

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28 Days of Black Excellence

An ongoing series for the entire 28 days of Black History Month that showcases the inventions, the people, and culture that makes people of the African diaspora so excellent.

[/vc_column_text][vc_separator color=”green” border_width=”3″][vc_column_text] Sure, I ran track in high school. But I was not Michael Johnson. I was pretty good, but I wasn’t Michael Johnson good. I idolized Jackie Joyner-Kersee. I adored Jesse Owens. I even felt a certain way about Maurice Greene (although when I met Mo in 2003, I really didn’t care for him, if I’m honest)—but Mike…he was without a doubt the be all, to end all. The gold shoes, the Superman “S” on his chest, that signature fully-upright posture (a gait that, coupled with his short stride, earned him the nickname “The Duck”), the inspiration for millions of little brown kids across America—that was Michael Johnson, my definition of the all-American hero.

Michael Duane Johnson was born on September 13, 1967, in Dallas. The youngest of five siblings, he began running track at a young age, but as a minor side project. He won his first meet at age 10. Then, as a freshman at Baylor, he was spotted by Clyde Hart, and with Clyde’s help, Johnson would go on to rule the world.

It was a difficult road, though. During his time at Baylor, he racked up a list of injuries, including pulled hamstrings and a broken fibula (injuries that would keep him from competing in the 1988 Olympics). But he ran a spellbinding 20.41 in the 200 meters, and he was only a freshman. Luckily, it didn’t prevent Johnson from winning five NCAA titles. He was the world’s best 200 and 400 meter runner. And that granted him sponsorship by Nike in 1990.

In Spain, during the ’92 Olympics, Johnson got food poisoning and could only run the 4 x 400m relay event. And although the team won gold, the world pauses to wonder what a fully healthy Johnson could have done in the other events had it not been for that food bug.

RELATED: 28 DOBE- Day 14: The Beast, Jack Johnson 

But that would be it…he’d had enough.  Starting in 1993, Johnson embarked on an incredible sequence of 58, 400m races in which he went undefeated, and he was soon being hailed as “Superman”.  The pinnacle of his track career came on home soil, at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996. 83,000 spectators looked on as Johnson, resplendent in his golden running shoes, completed a remarkable 200m-400m double, an achievement never matched before or since in men’s athletics. His times were remarkable too: 19.32 seconds for the 200m – a world record that stood for 12 years until being broken by Usain Bolt – and 43.49 seconds for the 400m.

It had, and for the most part still has, been taken for granted that the “fastest man alive” title would always go to the person who won the 100 meter dash. And it makes sense. But on the balmy Atlanta night at the Olympics, on August 1, 1996, with a 200 meter flash of gold shoes and blue spandex, Mr. Johnson took the title and literally ran with it. Of that night, Johnson remarked: “It wasn’t the perfect race, but it was absolutely the best race I ever ran.” It had been the perfect race to me. After all, it was this man who got me interested in sports as a kid. I’d run track and field as a teenager and amass my own little list of shiny trophies and bobbles in high school, but obviously nothing close to that of my idol.

By the end of his amazing professional career in 2001, right after his final victories at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Mr. Johnson had amassed 8 gold World Championship medals and 4 gold Olympic medals, zero silver, and zero bronze. One of my favorite people ever, Johnson has been called one of the best in track and field, and he’ll continue to be the best in my opinion—records and feats are arbitrary when you have a favorite. If Michael Jordan will always be the greatest to some, and Michael Jackson will always be the greatest to many others, Michael Johnson will always be my greatest. Cheers to this fast and no-so-furious ray of light and today’s example of black excellence.

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Alex Miller

Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.