Today, I’m highlighting two of my favourite all-time athletes who make the list for that reason alone. They were both the best in their distances. Their careers also largely coincided at the Olympic Games.
ATLANTA 1996, SYDNEY 2000: BORN TO RUN
Muhammad Ali took our breath away at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but Michael Johnson was the athlete of the games.
He was the man with the golden (Nike) shoes. And golden chain. And golden left earring. And gold watch. And that aura of supreme confidence that comes with being the best at something. Some might call it cockiness – I don’t.
None of that is to say he was flashy either. Running just happened to be what was what he was very, very good at. It was his business.
You see him crouched, serious at the starting blocks, focused, blowing air through his cheeks. He would take off and he worked hard. With shorter legs that many sprinters, his legs pumping up and down so fast; arms moving in rhythm with his legs; straight back.
He had blinding pace, literally cutting through space to get where he wanted to be – before anyone else. He was unbeatable.
Johnson was athletics’ first real multimedia superstar who had already gathered world championship gold medals in 1991, 1993 and 1995. He missed the 1988 Seoul games, as a 21-year-old, due to an injury. Four years later in Barcelona, he had a bout of food poisoning before his individual 200m race and couldn’t even make the final, though he recovered well enough to anchor the 4x400m relay to win his first Gold Medal.
He could run faster than anyone else in both 200m and 400m for the best part of five years prior to 1996, but he had not won an individual Gold Medal. Being the fastest over two distances meant that he used his commercial nous, garnered from his business degree, to obtain valuable endorsements and partnerships.
In Atlanta, Johnson became the first man to win the 200m and 400m at the Olympics. He was also the first man to defend the 400m in successive Olympics four years later in Sydney. He missed out on defending the 200m due to sustaining another injury at the time of the US Olympic trials.
His 200m time in Atlanta of 19.32s stood for 12 years until broken by Usain Bolt. His 400m world record of 43.18, set in 1999 at the world championships in Seville, still stands. It is one of nine world records he held.
Johnson earned a fifth Olympic Gold Medal, for the 4x400m relay in Sydney in 2000. It was subsequently stripped because other members of the team were found to have used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Five years later, the original decision was overturned and the Gold Medal reinstated. But three years after that, another minor member of the team confessed to taking PEDs. Johnson voluntarily returned his Gold Medal but he has said he felt “cheated, betrayed and let down.” (In recent days, Johnson has backed Australian swimmer Mack Horton for calling out a Chinese rival for past doping offences.)
Haile Gebreselassie has been running all his life.
He says he learned to run long distances from a young age. Growing-up on a farm in central Ethiopia, Gebreselassie ran 10,000m to school in the morning and another 10,000m return at the end of the day.
Inspired by other top Ethiopian long-distance runners, Gebreselassie entered the Addis Ababa Marathon at age 16 and, without any training, won it in 2h42m. Three years later he was noticed with wins in the 5,000m and 10,000m world junior championships, which he backed-up the following year with his first world championship win in the 10,000m Stuttgart in 1993 and a second in the 5,000m. He was only 20.
He broke his first world record in 1994, and continued to set new world benchmarks another 26 times in both the 5,000, and 10,000m.
Gebreselassie won consecutive Gold Medals in the 10,000m in Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000, four world championships and held 27 world records.
The two Olympic races were quite different though he was pitted against the same rival, another great runner, Paul Tergat of Kenya.
In Atlanta, Gebreselassie was tucked just behind Tergat when he took the lead with 400m to go. He stretched it to about 20m until Tergat gained ground, Gebreselassie always had the race run as he broke the Olympic record. Four years later in Sydney, the climactic conditions were better for distance runners but it was a much closer race with Gebreselassie and Tergat sprinting the final 200m.
What I find remarkable about watching both races is that, despite the tension inherent in a ~27 minute race over 10,000m, you don’t ever feel as if Gebreselassie was not going to win. Gebreselassie was a beautiful runner; erect carriage, taking shorter strides at a higher stride rate, fluid, light. But he was also a smart runner; whatever the tactics, he appeared to have the answer.
For me, he is the greatest long-distance runner the Olympics has seen.
Since his retirement from world and Olympic level athletics, Gebreselassie has continued to run competitively in distances ranging from 1500m to marathons. Amongst his achievements, he won the Berlin Marathon four consecutive years, three Dubai Marathon’s and one in each of Tokyo and Amsterdam. It is no surprise to learn that he once held the marathon record also in a time of 2h03s.
Only last year, Gebreselassie announced his retirement from competitive running. But for someone who has been running all his life, that doesn’t mean he’ll actually stop running.