gold rush | 

Michael Johnson on life after athletics and why his sport needs to change

Dallas-born Johnson is assured of a unique place in athletics history as he pushed the boundaries in the 200m and 400m races to levels that seemed impossible to imagine until Usain Bolt usurped his world records.

Athletics legend Michael Johnson is backing the Professional Triathletes Organisation

Johnson broke the world 200m record in the final in Atlanta© Action Images / Reuters

Kevin PalmerSunday World

As the great Michael Johnson stepped off the track for the final time in 2001, he knew he would never again experience the feelings of euphoria that had long since become his norm.

Yet, the iconic sprinter who set new standards in track and field athletics during a career that saw him claim a gold medal at three successive Olympic Games insists he did not suffer from the crushing sense of loss that afflicts so many elite sports stars when they walk away from their dream.

Dallas-born Johnson is assured of a unique place in athletics history as he pushed the boundaries in the 200m and 400m races to levels that seemed impossible to imagine until Usain Bolt usurped his world records.

Yet, as Johnson sat down with the Sunday World for a world exclusive interview in his role as an ambassador for the Professional Triathletes Organisation (PTO), it was clear that the 54-year-old is content with his achievements on and off the track.

“Every athlete who reaches that elite level knows that whatever they do when their sports career ends will never reach the high that sport gives you,” he began.

“You are going to retire at a very young age with a lot of living left to do and no matter how successful you are afterwards, it will pale in comparison to standing on the top of a podium at the Olympics. Nothing can compare to that.

“I was OK when I retired. I was very lucky that I sort of got to do all of the things that I really wanted to do in my sport – and very, very fortunate in that way.

“I think most athletes that struggle with that transition struggle because, maybe, they’re forced out by an injury, they had to leave the sport sooner than they were ready to.

“That wasn’t my story. I have been a BBC TV pundit for 20 years, I’ve worked on sports documentaries and I’ve started Michael Johnson Performance that helps athletes by giving them training services, so I have kept busy.

“I’ve won awards for my broadcasting and had some good achievements in my life, but I was right in thinking that nothing compares to the thrill of winning on the track. You can never replace that.”

Asking the greats of sport where they keep their winners’ medals often draws an interesting response, with displays of success often considered to be unsavoury from those who have achieved so much.

Irish Paralympic legend Jason Smyth told the Sunday World last year that his are stashed in the attic of his house, yet Johnson admits gold medals for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the 1996 edition in Atlanta and the 2000 Games in Sydney are too precious to be left in harm’s way.

“Sometimes I read these stories where athletes say they keep their medals in a shoe box under the bed and I wonder whether they are telling the truth,” continued Johnson, who was stripped of another Olympic gold when his 4x400m relay success in 2000 was taken away after team-mate Antonio Pettigrew failed a drugs test.

“The most outrageous stories get highlighted the most, so I would say 90pc or more of the athletes who won gold medals keep them in a very safe place. You don’t get another one if your house burns down, so there is no way I’d keep mine in a shoebox.

“My medals are in a safety deposit box and they come out every now and again. They are so special to me that I wouldn’t want to lose them.”

And what about his iconic golden running spikes from the 1996 Olympics?

USA's Michael Johnson celebrates as he runs by the stadium clock with his new world record of 19.32 posted after he broke his old record in the men's 200 metre final at Olympic Stadium in Atlanta, August 1,1996. REUTERS BOOKS© Action Images / Reuters

“Those shoes are in a less safe place,” he added with a smile. “They are in my house here actually and they are also special to me.

“Some of those golden shoes are also in museums and they are part of my story, but the medals are different. You can never replace those.”

Superstars such as Johnson and Bolt ensured track and field athletics retained a prominent position in the sporting landscape, yet its profile has slipped a little in the last decade.

Constant doping scandals have done damage to its credibility, but Johnson suggests athletics could do more to ensure they get the platform they need to promote the sport.

The PTO are bringing the best triathletes in the world together for events around the globe, with a set-up similar to the golf or tennis tour.

With big prize money and TV deals in place, the PTO are aiming to take triathlon to a whole new audience and Johnson wants to see something similar for track and field athletics.

“We don’t need more superstars in our sport, they are already there,” declared Johnson, who was clearly frustrated by the suggestion track and field lacks pulling power.

“Someone has to take our sport and put it in front of people. Tell the story and show it in a way that is compelling.

“What PTO are doing with triathlon is what we need in track and field because too many people believe the problem in athletics is we need stars.

“We need the media to tell the stories in athletics and put on events that allows them to display their talents.

“The issue we have is that we have too many events with athletes all over the place – and they are not incentivised to have that head-to-head competition we all want to see.

“We have all sorts of problems in track and field and we need to find some solutions because people are going to continue to throw darts at it.

“We had Usain Bolt and there has never been a bigger star in our sport. He was an even bigger star than I was, but he retired and what has that done for our sport?

“That tells you it’s not about having stars because if you are waiting for Usain Bolt, that won’t work. No sport is built around having one star, that’s not sustainable.

“You need people to love the sport first, then they will love the athletes. It’s up to the sport to make stars out of the great athletes.”

Johnson speaks from the heart as he urges athletics to modernise and compete with a host of sports that have taken their place on TV.

Athletics may need to embrace change before it finds a new audience, with Johnson likely to be vocal in his push for a new era in his sport.

Double Olympic champion Alistair Brownlee is among the star names taking part in this weekend’s PTO US Open men’s triathlon, with the action available to watch on Eurosport.

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