The golden shoes still resonate.
In the 16 years since they left Michael Johnson's feet, they have mostly done celebrity appearances solo. They have done television spots and toured the country – an orthopedic circus show for the masses. They were displayed under glass in Las Vegas, going glitter-for-glitter with the rest of Sin City. And they have even fueled engineering debates about their exact weight and composition.
If you saw the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, you know these shoes as well as any pair you have ever owned. You can close your eyes and see them, along with the whirring golden blur they projected from Johnson's feet in those games. Weighing 6.8 ounces, and with five grams of gold weaved into their fabric, they were rivaled by only one other accessory worn by Johnson in those games: the 500-gram twin gold medals in the 200 and 400 meters, a feat that remains one of the greatest accomplishments in U.S. track and field history.
Not only did Johnson become the only Olympian to capture gold in the 200 and 400 meters in the same games, he cut an iconic swath through a U.S. track program that hadn't been seen since Carl Lewis. And with the spate of doping controversies and suspensions in the 16 years since Johnson's achievment, his individual double remains as one of the few recent sprinting gold memories that can be recounted without trepidation.
Simply put, time has revealed Johnson as the United States' last truly great sprinting icon – the one whose legacy has pressed forward through the cloud of Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin and Tim Montgomery.
And maybe that's why the memory of Johnson has endured, because it has been so overwhelmingly positive.
It all started with his unforgettable golden Nikes – a beautiful, gaudy commentary about where he was destined to fit in Atlanta's Olympic spectrum. After falling victim to food poisoning and fizzling in Barcelona's 1992 Games, he wouldn't be denied again. With a world of pundits suggesting this would finally be the moment Johnson broke through with Olympic dominance in the 200 and 400, one needed only look at his feet to know whether he agreed.
"Flo-Jo [Florence Griffith-Joyner] wore the crazy one-legged uniforms and she could pull it off," said Dan O'Brien, a gold-medalist in the decathlon and Johnson's teammate in those Atlanta Games. "Carl Lewis was very flamboyant. He pulled it off. … I thought the [gold] shoes were great. It might have been a little bit bragadocious, but you know what? He of all people, probably more than anybody in history, could back it up."
Even so, stepping out in gold shoes was akin to stepping into Greek mythology. Hermes and his winged sandals delivered the messages to the gods, while Johnson and his gold shoes delivered messages to everyone else. But with Greek mythology comes tragedy, and Johnson's Olympic career had already suffered some of that, too.
Just opening eyes as a 20-year old world-class sprinter at Baylor University, a stress fracture in his fibula would force Johnson to miss the trials for the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Four years later, and headed toward his place as the greatest U.S. sprinter since Lewis, Johnson was hit by food poisoning two weeks before the '92 games. Severely weakened, he bottomed out in the 200 and failed to make the finals, recovering only in time to capture his first gold in the 4x400 relay.
That initial gold began a string of dominance that saw Johnson consistently stake his claim in both the 200 and 400 meters, drawing worldwide acclaim by capturing both at the 1995 World Championships. By the time he reached Atlanta in 1996, he was once again in the conversation with Lewis as potentially one of the greatest sprint Olympians in U.S. history.
"When he stepped on the track [in ‘96], people were knocking me down to get a look at Michael Johnson," O'Brien said. "And it wasn't about autographs or even to get near him. They just wanted to look at him – just to see him. He was a star."
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A star who obliterated the 200 meters world record in 1996, lowering the time from 19.72 seconds to 19.32 over the course of trials and the record-smashing Olympic final. In the 200, he was Usain Bolt at a time when a 10-year old Bolt was still playing cricket and soccer in the streets of Jamaica. Shaving .40 seconds off the 200 in one Olympic thrust was Bob Beamon-esque. And it left the world in awe.
Watching the gold-medal race, you could see Johnson's two nearest competitors – silver medalist Frankie Fredericks of Nambia and bronze medalist Ato Boldon of Trinidad – cross the finish line and simply look at each other in disbelief. Johnson had beaten Fredericks by more than three tenths of a second, which might as well have been an eternity in such a sprint event. And the first American to run from the infield and hug Johnson following the finish was O'Brien, who couldn't believe what he had just seen.
"Everybody froze to see that 200 meters," O'Brien said. "The whole place was quiet. You'd seen Michael Johnson run fast. You'd seen him get through the trials and the prelims and the semifinals. But then when the gun went off in the 200 in the finals … when he decides, 'Now I'm going to run all out,' it's a different gear. As soon as the gun went off, you could see, oh man, Michael's going for it. He came off the turn and it was just like, whew, man, we've been waiting for that one. We got 100-percent of Michael right there."
But to pair the feat with the 400 was almost as incomprehensible as the world record he'd just posted. Even now, coaches advise against the 200/400 combo because of the training price exacted on the body. Simply put, few sprinters have the speed to win the 200 and also be able to deliver on the speed/endurance combination to win the 400. Training to win one or the other is possible. Training to win both takes a special brand of athlete.
And Johnson fit that, with his upright but bio-mechanically sound and undeviating style. Unlike Bolt, who is known to rock his shoulders when he runs, Johnson's shorter stride and core muscle movements were as perfectly honed and consistent as any sprinter. While Bolt shattered Johnson's record in the 200 meters in the 2008 Beijing Games, Johnson's world record perfection has held fast in the 400 since the 1999 World Championships.
"It's a really tough event," Johnson told Yahoo! Sports of the 400. "It's not an event that you can have a lot of people come in and out of and get a quick hit like you can do in some of the other events. I think that's why the U.S. has dominated for so many years."
Now, nearly 12 years since his retirement from the sport in 2000, Johnson has become one of the most respected analysts in the sport. But his indelible mark from 1996 remains, both in the record book and the minds of those who witnessed his unmatched double. The gold shoes. The upright running style. The world record in the 400 meters that has never been seriously challenged. The star power.
As O'Brien put it, "Michael Johnson was thrown on this Earth to do that thing. I don't [care] if he can hit a golf ball. I doubt he can slam dunk a basketball. But, man, he was born to run."
Chris Chase contributed to this story.
Other Summer Olympic Memorable Moments on Yahoo! Sports:
• Memorable Moments: Carl Lewis chokes up at the memory of his four golds from the '84 Olympics
• Memorable Moments: Marion Jones: Triumph and tragedy
• Memorable Moments: The Dream Team give USA redemption