The clock reads 9 p.m. as American sprinter Michael Johnson coils himself into his starting blocks in a corner of Olympic Stadium in Atlanta, Ga., right beneath the glow of the Olympic flame.
This is the moment for which he has been waiting -- the Olympic 200-meter race. He has already won the Olympic 400, having blown away the field. Yet this race, the 200, is the one Johnson has had on his mind, the race that will distance him from the rest of the sprinting world, putting him in a class all by himself, for it will mean he is the first person ever to win both the 200 and 400 in the same Olympics.
July 29, 1996. Johnson is more focused, faster and sharper than ever before in his lifetime. Just an hour earlier, three blocks away from the Olympic stadium, he has run so fast and so precisely in a practice run that his coach, Clyde Hart, had to tell him to slow down. He was that fast.
As Johnson gets into set position for the race, he experiences his usual emotion -- fear. "I was petrified I wasn't going to get this gold medal," he would later say. "I was desperate to make history and I was afraid, at that particular moment, that I wasn't going to do it."
But for Johnson, the fear of failure isn't a big problem; it actually enhances his performance. "Being nervous," he would later admit, "makes me run better, faster."
The gun sounds. The race begins and 82,884 spectators rise as one. With thousands of flash cameras sparkling in the evening sky, Johnson rises from his position and explodes out of the box.
Just a few steps into the race, Johnson stumbles, ever so briefly, rekindling the memory of the previous Olympics in Barcelona, when food poisoning deprived him of the gold medal. But this time, he quickly regains form, without losing a beat. As he slingshots out of the turn, he suddenly finds himself in a zone of pure speed, testing the laws of physics. His gold shoes flicker through the stark light of the stadium. The gold chain around his neck shines brightly as it bounces off his jersey. His arms chop through the thick summer air, like a machine.
At the 80-meter mark, Johnson finds an extra gear, one he didn't know he had. He accelerates like no man ever has before in this race, reaching a speed never seen before. As he approaches the straightaway, he finds yet another gear, despite feeling a slight pull in his hamstring. "I saw this blue blur," bronze medalist Ato Boldon would say afterwards, "and I thought to myself, 'There goes first place.'"
Jaws drop and eyes widen as Johnson comes soaring down the backstretch, five meters ahead of silver medalist Frankie Fredericks of Namibia.
"When you come off the turn into the straightaway, you can tell how fast you're going," Johnson would say later. "I knew I was running faster than I had ever run in my life."
His stride is low and compact, his back stiff, his knees pumping, his face contorted, his feet a blur over the rigid, orange surface. He's on a mission. As he blazes across the line, victorious, his arms fly up. He glances at the clock and then throws his arms toward the heavens again and screams in ecstasy. The clock freezes a ridiculous number: 19.32. Fastest time in history.
Johnson falls to his knees in elation, relief and amazement in the aftermath of perhaps the greatest performance in track history. He realizes he has just accomplished what no man ever has -- winning both the 200 and 400. He has obliterated his own five-week-old world record of 19.66, which had erased Italy's Pietro Mennea's 19.72, a record that stood for 17 years.
Amazingly, if not for the early stumble and the pulled right hamstring he suffers at the end that will keep him from running in the 4 x 400 relay for a third gold medal, Johnson's time would have been even better.
Boldon, the bronze medalist, is so astounded by Johnson's record time that it isn't enough for him to shake Johnson's hand. He bows instead.