THE GREAT ONES MAKE IT LOOK EASY. When Dallas’ Michael Johnson blazed across the finish line to win the Olympic gold in the 400 meters, he was ten meters in front of the pack and accelerating. No runner had ever dominated this most demanding of all races so completely or made it look so simple. A few critics even suggested that he was holding back, conserving energy for the 200 meters three nights later. Point taken. Johnson’s winning time in the 200 shattered the world record—obliterated it for the ages. No athlete in any sport ever accomplished a more amazing feat.
In terms of style, courage, and dignity in his triumph, 28-year-old Johnson can be compared only to Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and single-handedly demolished Hitler’s master race theory. In victory, Johnson was humble and magnaminous. An American flag on his arm, he dedicated his win to the Georgia woman killed in the Centennial Park bombing. During the National Anthem, his eyes moistened and tears rolled down his cheeks.
Houston’s Carl Lewis made it look easy too, but in a self-serving manner. The 35-year-old almost didn’t qualify for the long jump finals, but on the night that everything was at stake, he blew away the competition to win his ninth gold medal. The great ones also package it for maximum effect. As soon as Lewis landed in the pit, however, he began campaigning for the anchor spot on the 4x100 relay team and an opportunity to win an unprecedented tenth gold. Many columnists, commentators, and athletes supported Lewis, most remarkably Michael Johnson. When their roles were reversed in the 1992 Olympics—when Johnson, who was undefeated and ranked number one in the world in the 400, was campaigning for a place on the 4x100 relay—Lewis opposed him.
Class will out. The best athletes tend to be showboats, prima donnas, or whiners, but Jesse Owens was a glorious exception, and so is Michael Johnson. They excelled for the common good, proving for all time that the measure of greatness is more than seconds or inches.