The United States of America has produced many great Track & Field champions over the past century. The names that stand out most clearly are those of such stars as Jesse Owens, Jim Ryun, Wilma Rudolph, Tommie Smith, Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Edwin Moses, and Michael Johnson, among others. I strongly feel that it is time to acknowledge that 110 meter high hurdler Allen Johnson belongs on the short list of the sport’s most notable all-time performers. The brilliance of the 34-year-old Johnson’s career has been largely overshadowed by the remarkable feats of many of the sport’s other stars; another reason it has slipped under the radar has to do with the fact that the quiet, unassuming Johnson does not have the type of personality that draws attention to himself or his achievements.
Since 1993, when, as a student/athlete at the University of North Carolina, Johnson finished second in the 110 meter hurdles at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, he has ranked among the top hurdlers in the world every year up to and including the year 2005, when, at the age of thirty-four, he earned a bronze medal at the World Championships in Helsinki in a time of 13.10, after having won the USA Outdoor Championships in a time of 12.99. No other current athlete in Track & Field has been as good for as long as Johnson has, and only a handful have been so in the history of the sport. He has won four World Championship gold medals (1995, 1997, 2001, 2003), an Olympic gold medal (1996), has been ranked number one in the world four times, and has been ranked number two in the world another four times. In addition, he has run under 13.00 nine times – more often than any other high hurdler in history. Nevertheless, he is less well-known than not only the major superstars from decades past, but also less than youthful track heroes like Justin Gatlin, Allyson Felix, and Jeremy Wariner, all of whom are more than ten years younger than Johnson. So, what gives?
Unfortunately, some of Johnson’s most glorious accomplishments on the track have taken place at inopportune moments – when even more awe-inspiring performances were produced by athletes in other events. I refer specifically to 1996 when mentioning this point, as he had what was arguably his finest year as a professional track athlete, yet was still overshadowed by his peers. At the USA Olympic trials that year, Johnson won the high hurdles in a stunning 12.92, tying Roger Kingdom’s American record, and coming up only .01 shy of Colin Jackson’s world record. On the same day, however, Michael Johnson ran a 19.66 in the 200 meter dash, smashing the old world record of 19.72 in the process. So who do you think everyone in Track Land was talking about the next day – AJ or MJ? Uh, you got it, MJ.
Later that summer, at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, Johnson won the gold medal in what was at that time a new Olympic record of 12.95, leading a 1-2 finish in the event for the Americans, as Mark Crear won the silver. Meanwhile, on the same night, the seemingly immortal Carl Lewis, at the age of 35, defied the odds, history, and the onset of old age by dipping into the fountain of youth and pulling out a 28-foot long jump that earned him a gold medal, and made him the only athlete in Olympic history to win a gold medal in four Olympic Games (1984, 1988, 1992, and 1996). So, again, who do you think everyone was talking about the next day – AJ or King Carl? You know the answer to that one.
Regrettably for himself from a publicity standpoint, Johnson is a low-profile guy who lets his races do his talking for him, and doesn’t go out of his way to seek recognition. He is the type of athlete that we Americans claim to admire – respectful of his opponents, humble in victory, graceful in defeat – but the sad truth is that such athletes too often go unnoticed or ignored. We’ll spend hours, for example, arguing over whether Randy Moss is better than Terrell Owens, but an equally quality receiver like Marvin Harrison won’t even get mentioned in the conversation for the simple fact that there is no flash to his style of play, no controversy attached to his name. So, if AJ were louder, more brash, more self-serving, he’d probably be more well-known. But then again, he wouldn’t be AJ. I would also add that if we’re going to throw up our arms in exasperation over the outlandish, flag-draped victory lap of the men’s 4×100 meter relay team in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, or the perpetual antics of an Owens or a Moss, then we should take more notice of a quiet hero like Allen Johnson, or else quit complaining.
Another factor contributing towards Johnson’s relative anonymity has to do with the fact that all the rivalries he has had with other hurdlers have been, more or less, friendly rivalries, consisting of mutual respect. The peak of popularity for the high hurdles came in the late 1970’s through the early 1980’s, when Greg Foster was battling Renaldo Nehemiah, and then Roger Kingdom, for hurdling supremacy. Nehemiah and Kingdom, both of whom were friendly, outgoing, and articulate individuals, played the role of “good guy” to the comparatively surly, grumpy Foster with the thick black beard, whom the public felt free to look upon as the “bad guy.” We Americans like good guy vs. bad guy rivalries, so even though Foster was a good guy at heart, his outward persona made it easy for us to cheer for Nehemiah or Kingdom. Contrarily, the athletes with whom Johnson has had a rivalry – from Kingdom, Crear, Jackson, Terrence Trammell, Cuba’s Anier Garcia, all the way up to current rivals Liu Xiang of China and Ladji Doucoure of France – are all good guys. None of them had or have the type of public image that makes a fan say, “I hope he doesn’t win.” In terms of being a recognizable public figure, it can definitely be argued that Johnson has been hurt by his maturity and humility, and by the maturity and humility of his rivals. That’s kind of messed up, to say the least.
An additional reason for Johnson’s obscurity in comparison to track’s other all-time greats would be the fact that he only competes internationally in one event, unlike former stars Owens, Lewis, Joyner-Kersee, and Michael Johnson. Plus, those legendary athletes who did focus on one event, like Moses and Nehemiah, were so dominant in that one event that their massive greatness could not be ignored or denied. Moses strung together a ten-year winning streak while Nehemiah broke the world record three times. Johnson, although outstanding, and clearly the best in his event over the past decade, and arguably the best in his event ever, has not been dominant. However, when considering how far Nehemiah took the event, there wasn’t much farther it could go. Also, when racing against the quality of opponents that Johnson has competed against – particularly Crear and Jackson – it wouldn’t be fair to expect dominance from Johnson any more than it would have been fair to expect Magic Johnson’s Lakers to have been dominant over Larry Bird’s Celtics. When facing enormously talented rivals on a regular basis, you’re gonna win some, and you’re gonna lose some.
Ironically, for me, the highlight of Johnson’s career, the defining moment of his career, came in a moment that might be considered humiliating and heart-breaking by the casual observer. It has often been stated that you learn more about a person’s character in times of adversity than you do in times of success. If that is the case, then we have learned that Allen Johnson’s character is impeccable. The moment that stands out to me occurred in 2004, at the Olympic Games in Athens, when Johnson fell over a hurdle late in the race in an early-round heat. Although he attempted to recover, the fall did not allow him to finish the race, and thus effectively ended his quest for a second Olympic gold medal. After briefly lying on the track in a state of stunned disbelief, Johnson quietly stood up and walked off under his own power. Afterwards, in interviews in which he was asked to describe and explain what had happened, he offered no excuses, placed no blame, but merely stated, “I fell down, I don’t know why.” He did not try to mask his disappointment, yet neither did he wallow in it. Such emotional maturity and such ability to put one’s athletic life into its proper perspective is a rare quality to find in the world of professional athletics, where there is so much pressure to perform at such a high level, and, specifically in Johnson’s case, to carry on the tradition of American hurdling excellence passed down to him by all the former hurdling greats of decades past.
A fall such as the one Johnson suffered in Athens is the kind that can cause a hurdler to lose his competitive edge entirely, to approach the barriers tentatively instead of aggressively, and to basically never be the same again. The fact that AJ came back and had such an outstanding 2005 season makes him a figure of reverence for all hurdlers who have fallen, and it serves as a lesson for all of us – whether track fans or not – that you can get back up after you fall, that disappointment is not synonymous with failure, and that the true test of character is, indeed, measured by how well one is able to respond to adversity, not by how well one is able to avoid it.
Although Johnson will be 35 years old by the time the 2006 outdoor season rolls around, he shows no signs of slowing down, and has no plans of doing so. In spite of the fact that he is a professional getting paid to do what he does, he still hasn’t lost his love for the sport, and has been reported as stating that he intends to continue training for another Olympic run in 2008. Still, speaking realistically, there can be no guarantees as to how much longer he’ll be around. Therefore, as track fans, as knowledgeable viewers who can appreciate greatness when we see it, we need to make sure we appreciate him while he is still competing, instead of waiting until he retires to acknowledge how exceptional an athlete he has been, and how much he has contributed to the sport of Track & Field.
© 2005 Steve McGill