The world’s greatest quarter-miler has enjoyed over two decades of respect and admiration. As is true of most iconic sports figures, Michael Johnson has seemingly always been the face of his primary event—the men’s 400-meter run.
But there was a time when Johnson was shunned from the exclusive club of tried-and-true world-class 400m runners.
Fittingly, it was in the magical confines of Eugene’s Hayward Field—and the 1993 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships—where Johnson paid his dues and entered the club.
Or at least got his foot in the door.
Johnson’s credentials to that point certainly merited attention. He was undefeated lifetime in all his 400m finals races. He was the only human to have broken both the 20-second barrier in the 200m (19.79) and 44-second barrier in the 400m (43.98).
Yet his elite 400m detractors questioned his durability and conditioning. Johnson was regarded as a 200m man who only ran the 400 in single races—without having to endure the grueling qualifying rounds of say, the World Championships or Olympics.
In addition, Johnson’s relatively short physical stature and running style—leaning backward, with short choppy strides—defied the accepted convention for a true 400m runner.
And so, as if to make a statement in Eugene as to his conditioning, Johnson arrogantly burst into a huge lead in his preliminary heat, then casually ambled—almost walked—to the finish line in 45.62.
World record holder Butch Reynolds (43.29), seeing the gauntlet thrown down, kept his powder dry in his quarterfinal heat but then blistered the track in the semis (44.81).
Quincy Watts, the 1992 Barcelona Olympic champion (43.50) also saw Johnson’s display and was determined to overcome an injury-plagued season (only five races) and put the young upstart in his proper place.
On the final day of the championships, in the final race, eight quarter-milers approached their blocks in one of the most anticipated contests ever held on the hallowed grounds of Hayward. Even a bothersome north wind which had rudely pestered the venue all weekend, suddenly settled down for the start.
Johnson, one of the best turn runners ever and aware of the visual advantage of the inner lanes, smugly claimed his lane three assignment. Andrew Valmon, the consummate 4×400 team runner—with multiple Olympic and World gold medals in the relays—knelt in lane four.
The 6’3″ Reynolds folded himself into the blocks in five. The 1991 world champion Antonio Pettigrew settled in lane six, and way out in lane seven, Watts—blind to the rest of the field—had but one option: make like a scared rabbit and “catch me if you can”.
Derek Mills, Darnell Hall and LaMont Smith would join the chase.
As the gun went up, the tension which had been building for three days—indeed all summer—congealed into a morgue-like silence.
Watts went out hard, quickly separating himself from Valmon, Johnson and Reynolds. At 200 meters, he clocked 20.95 and looked for all the world like the reigning Olympic champion.
Then, at about 250 meters, Johnson hit the after-burners, with Reynolds following on his right, rear flank. Valmon seemed frozen in their wake as they shot by on either side.
Coming out of the final turn, Watts’ dull racing edge (from inactivity) betrayed him. He relinquished his position first to Johnson, then Reynolds.
In the final straight, ironically it proved to be those short sprint races Johnson had been derided for which gave him the leg speed to fend off Reynolds’ challenge.
Johnson won in a new meet and Hayward Field record time (43.74). Then, it was Reynolds (44.12), Watts (44.24) and Valmon (44.28). Pettigrew (44.45) and Mills (44.62) also finished sub-45.
If this race finally got Johnson’s foot in the door of the 400m clubhouse, then a win at the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany later that August would certainly guarantee a reserved seat at the head of the bar.
And that’s exactly what happened. In Stuttgart, Johnson (43.65) and Reynolds (44.13) again finished one-two with Kenya’s Samson Kitur (44.54) third.
Maybe even more impressive was the team of Valmon, Watts, Reynolds and Johnson winning gold in the 4×400 relay in a world record time ((2:54.29). Johnson’s split time was an unbelievable 42.94.
Of course, Johnson went on to win multiple World and Olympic golds and became the most dominant 400m runner of all time. He set the current world record (43.18) in 1999.
And once again, we see that uncanny connection between the Hayward Field mystique and the world’s greatest athletes.
Watch video of both men’s and women’s 4×400 finals at 1993 Worlds.
also published (Feb. 2011) at: