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JOHNSON ENJOYING RELATIVE ANONYMITY ON OLYMPIC STAGE

Not so long ago, he was the story. Michael Johnson was the one who had the throng of reporters and cameramen following him around the Olympics, recording his every move, hanging on his every word, waiting for him to make history in front of his countrymen.

Here in Australia, Johnson has been a secondary figure, an afterthought, a complimentary mint after dinner. He ran the same race as the host country's national heroine, Cathy Freeman. He ran on the same team as the woman who would attempt to win five gold medals here, Marion Jones.

He was old news in a world that demands something new, something fresh and exciting. So when Johnson came onto the track here Monday night to run the final of the men's 400 meters, he might as well have been the guy sweeping up at the back end of the Macy's Parade. And you know what? He sort of preferred it that way.

"I knew that this would not be the same type of situation as Atlanta," Johnson said. "That's something that happens only once in a lifetime, or in a career, and I had mine. Honestly, it's not something I would want to go through again. I probably gained a few more gray hairs just doing this 400, let alone adding the 200 and being the focal point again."

In Atlanta, he was attempting to become the first athlete ever to win the 400 and 200 meters at the same Olympics. It was a daunting task, but Johnson achieved it in spectacular style, winning the 400, then coming back to shatter the world record by .34 seconds in the 200 a couple of days later.

Johnson never realized how withering the pressure would be until he went through it in Atlanta. So he knows as well as anyone what Freeman was going through here, and what it was like for Jones to declare her aspirations to the world and then go and try to meet them.

"As far as Cathy and Marion, these Games are theirs," he said. "They're in the position I was in in '96, both of them. I understand the pressure they're under and I think both of them have done an excellent job so far handling the pressure."

Perhaps no Olympic athlete has carried the sort of burden Freeman has here in Sydney, and carried it with such dignity and poise. She carried the hopes of an entire nation, which hadn't won a track and field gold medal in 12 years. As the torch lighter and Aboriginal hero, she came to be a symbol of a long-overdue reconciliation between the races here.

When she won the 400-meter gold, she dropped to the track, mentally and physically drained after a long, emotional 10 days. A great rush of joy and exhilaration washed over the Olympic Stadium, as 112,524 Aussies shouted her name and cried. A constellation of flash bulbs blinked their approval throughout the stands. Later, the people raised their voices together and sang out their national anthem, "Advance Australia Fair," as Freeman received her gold medal.

Johnson stood by while Freeman raced into history. He did not feel overlooked or diminished or forgotten. He felt elevated by the scene. As an athlete and an African-American, he felt a surge of happiness for her. As a competitor, he felt himself plugging into the energy she'd left in her wake. He was excited by the sheer opportunity to run.

"I was motivated by Cathy's performance," he said, "She drew the same lane I did -- Number Six, which isn't that great -- and she was able to go out and respond to the pressure and come through. I was motivated by that and was able to do the same thing. I am just really pleased for her because I know she is a good person.

"There was a lot of energy in the stadium, and I think we were fortunate to be able to come right behind her performance when the stadium was really buzzing and there was a lot of energy there. I think that made our race even better."

It was not a great race by any means. Johnson admitted later that he had run conservatively, not wanting to take any foolish chances. It was a cool night and prospects of a world record weren't good. Johnson was the last one out of the blocks, but the 33-year-old Texan, running in gold shoes, exploded through the first 100 meters in his signature, upright style.

Johnson accelerated through the back straightaway, where he overtook his training partner, Gregory Haughton of Jamaica. He pulled away from the field and even appeared to ease up toward the finish line. He won in 43.84, four meters ahead of fellow American Alvin Harrison but well off his world record.

He is the first man ever to win consecutive 400 meters at the Olympics. And to think, if not for a severe bout of food poisoning in Barcelona, he might have a staggering three straight golds in the 400. He has won a 1992 relay gold and the memorable 19.32 in the 200 meters at Atlanta, when he bettered his own world mark by .34 seconds.

It's too bad he and Maurice Greene both pulled up lame in the 200 meters at the U.S. Olympic trials. It would have been a treat to see him try to repeat his historic double of '96. Just the same, he will leave his final Olympics as the greatest 400-meter runner in history, and one of the finest sprinters the world has ever seen.

On a day that began with the news that Marion Jones' husband, C.J. Hunter, had tested positive for steroids, Johnson's win was a momentary relief from the controversy swirling around USA Track and Field. Sadly, it was probably overshadowed back in the U.S. by the Hunter bombshell.

"Right now, I'm happy with what I accomplished here," Johnson said. "Call it selfish, but I think I should be allowed to be selfish tonight and to just be thinking about my situation and the history I made, and not worry about what might overshadow that for people back at home.

"Hopefully, Marion will be able to continue to focus on what she's here to do," he said, "and hopefully you all will allow her to continue to focus on what she's here to do."

Deep inside, he knew that couldn't possibly be the case. After all, he has been there.

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