This interview came from Goldman Sach’s The Olympics and Economics 2012 report. Click here for the full PDF.
Q: From your experience of taking part in Olympic competitions over the past 20 years, what has changed and what remains the same about the Games?
Michael Johnson: Not much has changed at all really. One of the great things about the Games is that change doesn’t come quite as quickly as in other sports because it only takes place every four years. The historical sense of the Games, the format, has remained largely the same over the last 20 years—and even going back further than that. I think they got it right from the very beginning. The format of the competition guarantees that you’ll have the best athletes at their best in every Olympiad, and that’s what makes this competition so great. The only thing that has changed is that new sports have been introduced over the years. I know that in 2016 golf will be returning to the Games for the first time in many years and that’s a positive because it appeals to a wider bucket of people and a new generation of viewers.
Q: Do you think there is a difference between competing in Olympic competitions hosted in your own country versus those hosted by others?
MJ: The significant difference is the build-up to the Games. For example, over the last few years there has been this constant build-up of excitement around the Games in London that you would not experience in the US or anywhere else. That excitement means that the British athletes who are going to compete in those Games probably have an advantage that relates to motivation—to go out there and train hard every day, and be dedicated and committed to the training so that you can be at your best when the Games arrive. And that’s what it was like here in the US when Atlanta hosted the Games. But once the Games begin, it really doesn’t matter where they are held, whether it’s in your own country or in your own city. You are not going to have any competitive advantage—even in front of a home crowd—because that’s just the way the Games work. It doesn’t matter where in the world the Games are held. The real advantage is the build-up.
Q: And is there a disadvantage? Is there more pressure if you are running with your home crowd behind you?
MJ: Well, pressure is specific to the particular athlete and it would be difficult to generalize how each athlete will feel and respond to pressures. Some athletes will respond positively to the fact that there is a largely British crowd in this instance. They will feel more motivated and inspired, but some may feel afraid of that situation. What’s most important is the ability to focus on the task at hand, to be able to execute the race, or the game strategy, in the same way as you have done in the past, prior to the Games. Whatever athletes need to call on to deliver their best performance will be important. If that means using the crowd as inspiration, that’s not going to put additional pressure on them. The most important thing is they need to understand how best to deal with this situation
Q: You are the only athlete to have won both the 200 meters and 400 meters dash events in the same Olympics. What are the next peaks that athletes should aspire to in order to follow in your footsteps?
MJ: It’s very difficult to have athletes in the sport of athletics who are able to win multiple medals at different events. It’s difficult enough to win one event. And so it will always be a significant accomplishment for those athletes who are fortunate to have the talent to be able to compete in two or even three different events. And, as we touched on at the beginning of this conversation, the Games don’t change very much from one to the next. There is this idea that after I won the Olympic gold medal in 200 and 400 meters in 1996 the next generation of athletes would try to do something else.
The reality is that no one has been able to do that since. If you think back to 1936, when Jesse Owens became the first person to win four Olympic gold medals, it wasn’t repeated again until Carl Lewis did it in 1984. That’s how slowly things move in the Olympics and that’s how significant the history making moments are in the Olympics. They just don’t happen that often. I think the next peak would be any time another athlete can excel in two different events, win medals in two different events at the Olympics. That’s a significant accomplishment and one of the things many athletes will be aspiring to do. But, obviously, winning one Olympic gold medal is significant enough.
Q: What do you find most exciting about entering a competition? Is it the chance of winning, the testing of your own limits, or the desire to be better?
MJ: It’s all of those things, and the great thing about the Olympic Games is that you know it is the best opportunity to do all of those things. Winning a grand prix event that happens every year somewhere around the world is one thing—but winning at the Olympic Games, with all of its historic sense, is a completely different thing. When you talk about testing your own limits and being better, there is no better opportunity to do that than at the Olympics, when you know you are testing yourself in the ultimate test against all of the best athletes in the world. You know that everyone will be at their best because of the significance of the Games and because only one person can win that gold medal. They will have put everything they possibly could into training and preparing for this event. And so when you come out on top at this event, you have won at the highest possible level.
Q: Turning the conversation towards the connection between Olympic sports and economics, do you see any parallels between the way an athlete prepares for success and the way countries develop?
MJ: Maybe the one parallel is most athletes probably only have one opportunity to compete in an Olympics and four years to prepare for that. In many countries, in the US for example, political leaders have four years to make a difference, and so it’s similar from that standpoint.
But economic changes in countries can take much longer to effect than four years. If you compare that to a situation with an athlete, I was able to improve over a long period of time, with short-term goals in between. But it’s the consistency that I was able to establish over that period of time that ultimately allowed me to reach my full potential. The issue with countries is that it’s very hard to achieve that type of consistency, with political changes dominating any ability to effect change in a country.