Facebook Twitter



IF MICHAEL JOHNSON wasn't already the biggest thing in track and field since lycra tights and Carl Lewis, then what is he after his performance in this week's World Track Championships? His unprecedented, almost unheard-of double victory in the 200- and 400-meter dashes makes him all the rage in his sport. At the very least, you had probably better make a place for him among the world's great Michaels and M.J.s, with Jackson and Jordan. He'll be hot stuff in the coming Olympic year.

If the people who run track and field were smart - and there's been little to suggest they are - they would do everything they could to keep Johnson on stage as long as possible at next summer's Olympic Games.You don't use Streep for one scene and give her the hook. You don't have Pavarotti exit the stage after one performance. You don't pull the plug on Eric Clapton after one set. And you sure don't sweep Johnson off the track after just one race.

But that's what is likely to happen at the '96 Summer Games. Johnson says he won't be able to compete in both the 200 and 400 meters in Atlanta because the schedule there doesn't provide enough rest between those events. And the people who made the schedule - the International Amateur Athletic Federation - aren't accommodating him.

Johnson and the IAAF have been arguing about it all summer.

At the U.S. and world championships, Johnson was able to complete the 400-meter dash - four rounds in four days - before beginning the first of four rounds in three days for the 200. But at the Olympics, the events will overlap - there are two rounds of the 200 scheduled on the same day as the 400-meter semifinals, and the 200-meter semifinals are scheduled on the day of the 400 final.

The IAAF, which rules track with the same deft touch the Communists once used to rule Russia, increased the rest between the 200 semifinals and the 400 final to 2 hours and 35 minutes. Primo Nebiolo, the IAAF's crusty old dictator for life, said the extra time would allow Johnson to "run easily, easily. If he runs backward, he can still do it."

But Johnson says it's too risky. If he runs both events, he might not win either one of them. So Johnson and his entourage and anyone else who waves America's Olympic flag will try to pressure the IAAF to change the schedule. There has been talk of NBC joining the fray. There could be a letter-writing campaign by fans and some back-room manuevering by Nike, Johnson's sponsor.

As a standard practice, the IAAF should separate the 200 and 400 - after all, both are sprint races - but there's never been a need to do it. Rarely has there been a sprinter who possessed both the speed and the speed endurance to master both races. Certainly not in the same meet. But here is Johnson, breaking records and laws of nature in both events, and he should prompt some rethinking.

But the IAAF, which has always strived to keep athletes under its thumb and bristled at any athlete who challenged it, has already set its schedule, knowing full well that Johnson wanted to attempt both events. The IAAF could have simply repeated the schedule they used at the World Championships, but it chose not to - strange thinking for a sport that is badly in need of a boost, especially in the U.S.

So the schedule is set. Johnson is stuck with it. The IAAF reasons that if it changes the schedule for Johnson, why not for Algeria's Noureddine Morceli, who would like to run the 1,500 and 5,000 but has resigned himself to one race because of schedule conflicts.

If the schedule is changed now, America will look like a bully, again. When American Gwen Torrence was disqualified for stepping on the lane line en route to her win in the 200 at the world championships, runnerup Merelene Ottey of Jamaica feared it would be overturned because the U.S. is a "big country and things usually go their way."

Will the U.S. get its way for Johnson? With America playing the role of host next summer, it might be bad manners. The IAAF put everyone in a bad position by ignoring obvious considerations in making its schedule.

Johnson could be to the '96 Games what Carl Lewis was to the '84 Games, what Lasse Viren and Alberto Juantorena were to the '76 Games, what Jesse Owens was to the '36 Games. If Johnson is unable to do both the 200 and the 400, then one of those events will be lacking its world champion, which is hardly an Olympian standard.

But as long as the IAAF is in charge, the Olympic track meet is theirs. Their rules and decisions are law. The Olympics has to live with it.

Sadly for Johnson, there probably will be no second chances. The windows of opportunity are small in track and field, particularly in the sprints. Things an change in a matter of days, as Johnson discovered in 1992. A heavy favorite to win the 200, he didn't even make the final, the victim of food poisoning.

At 27, Johnson is now at the height of his skills; he will never be better than he will be in the next couple of years. It will be a shame if can't make a full demonstration of those skills next summer in Atlanta.