Hayward Field Flashback: Michael Johnson, 1993

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.

Butch Reynolds: “…the 400m is a MAN’S race…”

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.

Quincy Watts: “…if I was going to lose, they’d have to chase me down in the woods…”

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:

Bleacher Report

Sports Then and Now

Track & Field: Simplicity is its Appeal

 

The common kitchen match.

It’s been around for nearly two centuries, essentially unchanged. Today’s high-tech geniuses have not come up with a cheaper, safer, more portable source of fire.

John Browning’s Colt .45 auto-loading pistol.

In an age where a missile can be guided through a knothole from outer space, Browning’s 1911 design is still without peer in regard to efficiency and reliability.

The Great White shark.

No frills. No attractive lures. It sees what it wants and gets it. Over millennia, it has not changed or evolved. The perfect killing machine has no need to adapt.

The beauty is in the simplicity.

Since man first became aware of his own existence, he followed a pattern observed in his fellow four-legged creatures: a playful pre-enactment of more serious matters to come.

Just as young pups and adolescent colts feigned aggressive behavior as practice for future survival, humans engaged in games, mimicking the skills necessary for hunting and warfare.

Running, jumping, throwing.  Strength, agility, speed.  An inborn competitive spirit drove man to seek the fastest, the strongest, the most enduring.

And such was the genesis of what we now call Track and Field.

The basic elements of my favorite sport have not changed over the centuries. It still comes down to a single individual, sometimes with a single implement, striving against an opponent to determine how fast, how high, or how far.

No frills, no protective gear, rain or shine, clothed in only the essentials. Competition in it’s most raw and fundamental form.This is why the sport appeals to me.

The beauty is in the simplicity.

Lately my sport has lost some of it’s popularity. Some blame drugs. Some blame a lack of media attention. Others say not enough blood and violence.

The drugs have been prevalent in almost every sport. Track and Field now has one of the most stringent testing regimens in sport, to the point of even banning some substances which have no performance enhancing properties at all. The modern athlete is subject to an ever-invasive presence few of us can relate to.

Since the “Golden Age of Track and Field” (1960s and 70s), yes, media attention has been diverted to other sports, more by default than public demand.

When one considers the two Track and Field powers of that day (USSR and USA), perhaps the two misguided Olympic boycotts in 1980 and 1984 did more lasting harm to the sport than good for the world.

Blood and violence? Society, with it’s onslaught of non-stop multimedia and virtual reality has become de-sensitized, and clamors for more and more stimulus. Is the sight of Usain Bolt twice demolishing two world records not stimulus enough?

The temptation by those in power, to right the sport’s ship, may tend toward the way of the world: more glitz and gimmicks. I appeal to those in power to not go in that direction. It will surely lead to the dilution of one of history’s purest sports.

The inaugural Diamond League Series, featuring the world’s top talent, teeters precariously in that direction. The format eliminates many of the traditional events at each venue to satisfy the time constraints of television—a reflection of today’s  “microwave” society.

While the basic concept is good in that it does guarantee the most elite athletes will appear at 14 venues across the globe, the series needs some tinkering. What is not guaranteed is that the best of the best will consistently meet head-to-head throughout the season.

A thrill-seeking public will quickly tire of yet another predictable outcome as the superstar athlete avoids his top rivals.

Given Track and Field’s steady popularity over the decades, perhaps a look back would be more prudent in searching for answers.

The current down cycle in the sport is but a blip in the grand scheme of things.

Track and Field has endured the Fall of Rome, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Crusades, the Industrial Revolution, two World Wars and the Beatles. Through it all, it has maintained its purity, simplicity and integrity.

Society is not the constant in this equation. Our sport is.

Society will eventually sicken itself as its tolerance level for more stimulus is finally achieved. It will come full circle and again long for the pure and simple. Hopefully our beloved sport will be there waiting, unchanged, for a new generation of fans.

The beauty will be in the simplicity.

 

This article (originally written 2010) also published at Sports Then and Now

Published in: on November 26, 2011 at 9:41 am  Leave a Comment  
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Skydance: the secret tryst of the pole vaulter

Not many hear the music, let alone embrace the dance

I wait, rehearsing the steps in my mind
At the end of the runway – the bar, as a taunting rival – silently stands
even daring to touch the object of my dreams
I lift my eyes to the deep blue beckoning of my tantalizing partner

The music begins…

Like a charger-mounted knight I raise the lance
Fair Lady waits with a wink of romance
If strength and form come together perchance
the sky and the rider will embrace in the dance

Planting the pole, it bends like a hickory bow
I lay back, thrusting feet upward at the bow’s release
Straight as an arrow, into a handstand I twist – six meters high
Then, as a jackknife closing, over the bar

Releasing the pole, on my partner entranced
I pass over my rival with nary a glance

When the aerie Lady and I join hands
for the briefest of moments
, ours is the dance

The music fades…

As if torn from a lover, I fall back to earth
The lingering fragrance, the fading notes sustain my joy a little longer
Then, the cheers remind me: the crowd sees only the jilted rival
They know nothing of the sky dance.  Just as well…

Secrecy only sweetens its beauty.

Published in: on November 20, 2010 at 9:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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