Run properly, the 110 meter hurdles is one of track and field’s most beautiful events. It demands an unusual combination of speed, grace and power. Modern athletes do not jump the barriers. Like dragonflies above a pond, they skim over the hurdles at full speed with minimal clearance. Their timing and precision is at a level incomprehensible to those outside the discipline.
Traditionally the men who wage war over the 110 hurdles tend to be muscular and aggressive types, mesomorphs with long inseams. But then along came Allen Johnson.
An Olympic gold medalist and four-time World champion, Johnson would have no difficulty blending in at a seminar for tax accountants. He’s smart, slender, not exceptionally tall, wears glasses and speaks with a gentle tone. He’s even humble. Clearly not the kind of guy fans expect to see in the high hurdles. But that is the greatness of track and field. It never matters who you are, where you come from or how you wear your hair. It’s all about who crosses the finish line first. And Johnson, 33, has been very good at reaching that line before everyone else.
He says looks can be deceiving. He knows how and when to turn off the nice guy switch and become a warrior.
‘When I get out there on the starting line I have a lot of fight in me,’ said Johnson. ‘And then, when I step off the track, I go back to being my normal self. The person I am on the track is not the same person I am off the track.’
At 33 years-old, Johnson’s longevity is becoming as impressive as his medal collection.
‘Technique and the fact that I am always looking to get better keeps me sharp. I always try to think outside the box. I’m always searching for that perfect race. I think that’s the thing that keeps me on top. Once I master something, I try not to be satisfied. I try to keep going and discover something new.’
One can only wonder how world class hurdlers cope with the demands of their discipline. Fractions of an inch and thousandths of a second for them are vast canyons that separate winners from losers.
‘You don’t worry about it. You understand the risks that come with the job. You practice so much that those fractions of inches seem like feet to hurdlers. When we are off by just a little bit, the average spectator can’t see it but we know it.
In one of Johnson’s biggest races, the Athens Olympics in 2004, the unforgiving nature of his event caught up to him and he fell in his quarterfinal race, squashing his hopes for another gold.
‘Honestly, I was extremely disappointed when I hit the track but once I got up and walked away I was alright with it because I felt like I had established myself for the year. I still felt like no matter what happened I was still the best hurdler in the world. My career up to this point, I feel, speaks for itself. That one race wasn’t going to define my career or my entire being.’
If one race had to define Johnson’s career it would be the one run on a hot night in Atlanta, Georgia, when he beat the world to win track’s biggest prize.
‘It was a dream come true,’ said Johnson. ‘Going into it, I expected to win because I had the mind set of an athlete. But when I crossed the finish line, it was ‘wow, I really won the Olympics. This is huge.’ It was a good feeling. I don’t even remember being on the award stand.’
Is everybody cheating? The subject of performance-enhancing drugs is on everyone’s mind these days and rightly so. The BALCO scandal, Kelli White’s confession, Tim Montgomery’s suspension and the cloud of suspicion hanging over Marion Jones have fans wondering just how deep the problem goes.
‘No, everybody is not cheating,’ said Johnson. ‘Most of the people that were on his [Victor Conte, owner of BALCO] program were average athletes that really weren’t good enough to be professional athletes. The only way for them to be good enough to be professional athletes was to cheat. The rest of us, the ones who are good enough and willing to work hard and not take short cuts, we don’t need it. It’s a shame that right now the ones who are cheating are the ones that are being shown on television in front of millions of viewers and it’s only their opinions that are being expressed and not athletes like myself and Kareem Streete-Thompson [Caymanian athlete] who aren’t dirty. We should have a chance to sit side-by-side with these people and debate the issue.’
Johnson’s heartbreaking fall in Athens hasn’t slowed him at all. He has been running well this indoor season and still may get that return visit to the winner’s podium as he plans to compete through the 2008 Games. In truth, if he could get away with it, he might never retire.
‘I have so much fun doing this,’ he said. ‘It’s a job I love to do. If I could do this forever, I would. I definitely want to go back to the Olympics again and try to get a medal.’