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Be Like Mike (Johnson, That Is)

In the age of MTV and the no-attention span, most Americans demand their spectator sports stuffed with flash, crash and bang--along with the occasional three-color dye job. Graying Cadillac owners still watch golf on the boob tube, but the silent beauty of man or woman gliding swiftly over a course of ground has largely lost its appeal. At the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, more people will probably notice the beach volleyball players than, say, Nourredine Morceli.

Nourrewhat?
Why, Nourredine Morceli. While most red-blooded U.S. sports fans were busy crushing beer cans against their foreheads and begging to buy Dan Marino lunch, Nourredine Morceli quietly became the greatest middle-distance runner in the history of track and field. A skinny Algerian with an ascetic shine in his eyes, he holds years-old world records in the 1,500 meters and the mile, and the only race he's lost in this decade was the 1,500 at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Now that you know all about Nourredine, here's another mystery guest: Michael Johnson.

No. Not Michael Jordan. And not Magic Johnson. Michael Johnson. Quite possibly the greatest athlete on earth.

In Atlanta, this tall Texan, virtually unknown outside the pages of Track and Field News, will attempt one of the most daunting feats in Olympic history: winning gold in the 200- and the 400-meter dashes. The reigning master of both events ran away with that rare double last August at the world championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, then topped it off two days later by anchoring the U.S.'s winning 4-by-400-meter relay team. What casual observers forget is that Johnson's double actually required eight races in six days--three heats and a final in each event.

In Atlanta, the competition will be even stiffer, but the Olympic powers that be--no strangers to drama--have decided to accommodate the 28-year-old Johnson. By juggling the track-and-field schedule, they've made it possible for him to become the first man to win both events at the Games. NBC television probably gave them a nudge. The American network paid a record $456 million to broadcast 171 hours of Olympic action this summer, and you can bet they don't want all of it to be table tennis, judo and kayaking. Or even Dream Team Three's slam-dunk of whoever finishes a distant second in basketball.

Johnson's chances? Well, he has won 19 straight 200s and 52 straight 400s, and he blows by most opponents as though they were Jackie Gleason.

So what's the big deal? For one thing, anyone who's ever laced up a pair of track spikes can tell you that the 200/400 double demands two nearly irreconcilable kinds of skill. The 200, longest of the sprints, is pure flight; the 400, shortest of the middle-distance races, is sheer agony. Only a superb athlete (or a confirmed masochist) would try to bridge the gap. Valerie Brisco-Hooks--another great American name no one knows--won Olympic gold in these two events at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, but women's track remains even more unheralded in this country than the men's version. Valerie's last name may as well have been Morceli.

Johnson, who trains quietly, almost unnoticed, at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, may enjoy a moment in the sun, because even Americans watch a little track (if not its poor relative, field) every four years, when the Olympics come around. But unless the star sprinter turns his Lycra unitard in for a Dallas Cowboys jersey (the man is built like a big wide receiver), he's unlikely to be endorsing breakfast cereals or parrying with David Letterman two months from now. Not enough flash, crash or bang in his sport.

Truth be told, Michael Johnson has also run into some bad luck over the years. So talented was he after blooming at Dallas's Skyline High School, he might have made the 1988 Olympic team as a Baylor sophomore. But he suffered a stress fracture in his left leg. The next year he missed most of the outdoor season with a strained quadriceps. By 1992, Johnson was at the very top of his game and scorched the 200 meters at the Olympic trial in 19.79 seconds, the quickest time on the planet in over four years. Two weeks before the games in Barcelona, though, he got a severe case of food poisoning in Salamanca, Spain, and never regained full strength. He didn't even qualify for the 200-meter final.

Now the door is open again, and Michael Johnson is on a mission. "Everything happens for a reason," he said last week, encompassing that bad plate of paella in Salamanca as well as the relative obscurity of his chosen sport. In Atlanta, he'll be the prohibitive favorite in both of his events--something like the Dream Team, come to think of it--not only for his speed but for his training regimen: If anything, Waco is even hotter and muggier in the summer than Atlanta.  

Optimists in the track world are even hoping that Michael Johnson is the man who will finally popularize their beloved sport in the United States--or at least earn it some respect--just as thoroughbred people are hoping that the great Cigar, winner of fifteen straight, will be the hero that restores horse racing to its former glory. One irony is that the ancient Olympics began with foot races: A pretty quick guy named Corebus won a 630-foot race back in 776 B.C. (racing in the nude, of course), but they never heard of him in Cleveland. And when a Greek soldier named Pheidippides ran about 25 miles to Athens with the news of a Greek victory over the Persians, then promptly dropped dead, not a tear was shed in Jersey City.

Whether Michael Johnson can change any of that next month in Atlanta remains to be seen. He would probably do well to stay out of fish places on Peachtree Street. And he best beware of his main 400-meter rival, world-record holder Butch Reynolds. Last June, the story goes, Johnson tried to inject a little glitz into his characteristically workmanlike performance by waving at the crowd at the U.S. Nationals just before breaking the tape in the final. Mr. Reynolds, the sensitive second-place finisher, thought he'd been shown up and would like nothing better than to steal half of Johnson's gold at the Olympics.

In the meantime, track and field--once a cause for at least minor celebration--continues to draw about as big a crowd in the U.S. as rowing or handball. If you know that America's Gwen Torrence is the favorite to win the women's Olympic 100- and 200-meter dashes, you're way ahead of most people; if you know that the rest of the runners detest Torrence because she's always accusing them of taking steroids, you're just about an expert. If you know that Wilson Kipketer of Kenya is considered a lock to win the men's 800, you deserve a gold medal yourself, and if you're picking Russia's Igor Astapkovich in the hammer throw, they ought to name you chairman of the competition committee.

On the other hand, most people will probably be watching the synchronized-swimming events. By now, you've probably heard about the flap concerning the French team and its government-dashed plans for a swim routine depicting the horrors of the Holocaust--complete with timed goose-stepping, gloomy black bathing suits and swimmers "falling" into death pits. Thank goodness the head Frenchman got to these waterlogged brains before the world had to see that. However, the French still have one thing going for them. Rabid track fans, they refer to the greatest sprinter in the world, the man from Waco, as Magique Johnson. By summer's end, maybe people in his native country will show the same good sense. By then, too, we may even have a little re-gard for Nourredine Morceli.

The game giveth and the game taketh away, but the last thing you want taken away in 1996 is your home-run power. Although the Blake Street Bombers are no longer seeing all those heaters down the middle, the Rockies lineup still has plenty of pop--Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette and Ellis Burks are all double-digit home-run hitters this season, and Vinny Castilla is overdue for a power surge.

But the loss of center fielder Larry Walker (14 HRs, 43 RBIs) for the entire summer does not bode well for a club that depends on running up football scores to win games. He couldn't have broken his clavicle at a more heartbreaking time: In that June 8 slugfest at Coors Field with the Braves, Walker broke a 3-for-16 slump with two singles and two homers, and his team squeaked by 13-12; the next afternoon he ran into the wall and his season was over.

How does that play in this power-laden year? Consider: The New York Mets, a hip pick for the playoffs in early April, have little power and good pitching and remain in last place in the National League East; the hopeless Detroit Tigers, who have no pitching and just one home-run king, Cecil Fielder, are 22 games behind the Yankees in the American League East; the Kansas City Royals, who have struck just 35 homers all season, are in last place, 14 games behind the long-ball Cleveland Indians.

Baseball's cozy new ballparks--Camden Yards, Jacobs Field and, most notably, Coors Field--are homer heaven. Combine that with the spotty pitching wrought by expansion and the thinnest air in baseball, and Walker's loss puts the Rox in big trouble. Last year the locals and their opponents hit an amazing 241 home runs in Coors Field: Take Walker's 35 or 38 dingers out of the mix, and what do you have?  

The basement, wethinks.


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