Before Usain Bolt, there was Michael Johnson.
Almost 20 years to date, the American scorched the tracks at the Atlanta Olympics, winning a 200m-400m double and breaking two world records along the way -- the only male athlete to have aced the two events at the same Olympics.
Johnson swiftly secured extravagant endorsement deals, graced magazine covers and became among the sport’s first bona fide superstars.
The achievements look only shinier as his style defied conventional wisdom that a high knee lift was essential for speed. His stiff, straight back and the short piston stride earned him the nickname ‘The Duck.’
Growing up, kids made fun of his running style.
“I remember once, they were talking about how funny I ran, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I was watching you guys after I crossed the finish line ... and I noticed that you run funny, too. You run kind of slow,” Johnson said in a recent interview.
Johnson made his Olympic debut at Barcelona in 1992 and entered the 200m competition as world No 1. A bout of food poisoning meant he couldn’t make the final, but he did leave Barcelona with gold as Team US won the 4x400m relay.
By the time Atlanta rolled in, Johnson was already a six-time World Championships medallist. After obliterating the field in the trials, Johnson took to the track wearing his then audacious and now signature gold spikes.
“Opting for gold shoes could have been considered downright cocky, but I was confident and never doubted my ability to deliver gold medals to match my shimmering footwear,” Johnson wrote in his book ‘Gold Rush.’
It is said that during the 200m final in Atlanta, which he won in a world record 19.32 seconds , one of the shoes came slightly loose, but Johnson still sailed through.
At the 1999 Seville world championships, Johnson ran a world record 43.18 seconds to win the 400m gold, after getting a wildcard entry as defending champion. This, after he failed to qualify in the US trials due to injury.
Four years later, in Sydney, the man with the golden shoes struck again. This time wearing spikes with actual 24-carat gold woven in, Johnson became the only man to successfully defend the 400m Olympic gold. He also won the 4x100 relay gold but had to return it in 2008 after teammate Antonio Pettigrew was caught for doping, admitting to taking a performance-enhancing drug. Pettigrew committed suicide in 2010.
Johnson, who retired in 2004, is tied with compatriot Carl Lewis for most gold medals won by a runner: Four at the Olympics and eight at world championships. His 200m record may have been broken by Bolt and the golden spikes from 1996 auctioned off, but Johnson is still considered one of the most consistent runners ever.
Johnson was inducted in the US Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2004 and worked with the BBC as a commentator. He lives in Marin County, California with wife Armine Shamiryan and 16-year-old son Sebastian, born to Johnson’s first wife, entertainment reporter Kerry D’Oyen.
In 2007, he opened a training centre called ‘Michael Johnson Performance’ in McKinney, Texas, a state-of-the-art facility which helps train young athletes as well as stars from NBA, MLB and Formula One.
Last year, English Premier League club Arsenal hired Johnson to help improve the speed and strength of the youth squad.