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A first step into history

William Tecumseh Sherman marched through Georgia in 1864, leaving the Atlanta track scorched. Now, 122 years later, Michael Johnson is burning his way through the town. Blurring in boots of gold, winning a medal to match. Expecting another.

A legend half-made.

Johnson exterminated Monday night 400-meter opposition. A golden breeze whipping through Olympic Stadium. A lap of 43.49 seconds. Fastest ever by an Olympian. Flashbulbs winked by the thousands as the smooth, powerful Michael Machine did the expected.

"This makes up for '92," Johnson said. "It's been worth the wait. Worth the work. Worth the four years it's taken me to get another Olympic chance. Finally, I get an individual gold medal."

At the Barcelona Olympics, the Texan ate some bad Spanish sausage. He got food poisoning. A pained Johnson was eliminated in qualifying heats at both 400 meters and 200.

Georgia's been on his mind. These are supposed to be his Games. Atlanta is fast becoming Michael's town. He can become the first to earn double Olympic gold in the 400 and 200.

One down, one to go.

A journalist from Europe asked Johnson about his gold shoes. "I wanted a gold medal," said the 28-year-old former Baylor University sensation. "I liked the color. I made my shoes gold, hoping it would bring good luck. I guess it worked."

So far.

Johnson should have a more difficult exam in Thursday night's 200-meter final. Frankie Fredericks of Namibia beat Michael at that distance July 5 in Norway.

As journalists interviewed Johnson beneath the track venue, 35-year-old Carl Lewis was outside in the arena, an American flag draping shoulders in celebration of a past-his-prime gold medal in the long jump. Michael was asked to comment on Lewis finishing his Olympic career with 10 medals and a climactic gold.

"That's great," Johnson said in a less-than-enthusiastic tone. Reporters chuckled at the apparent lack of sincerity. "No, it's good," the 400-meter demon added. Michael, like many from the global fraternity of human speed, isn't a fan of Lewis. He clearly would rather not have shared Monday night glory with the other guy from Texas.

Johnson can have Thursday to himself. He'll never equal the medals of Lewis, nor will he be another Jesse Owens, but Michael Machine can carve his own deep, unforgettable legacy.

Analysts of sports, always eager to compare, will attempt to historically rank a double-gold Johnson with 1936 Olympics icon Owens. No sir! I can't do that. It's like trying to compare artists or actors of different ages; laboring to measure a modern LeRoy Neiman against a classic Claude Monet, or today's film works of a Tom Hanks against the past excellence of a Sir Laurence Olivier.

Impossible. Ludicrous.

Johnson is a talent extraordinaire, but Michael himself sees comparisons with Owens as nonsense. "What the great Jesse did is untouchable," Johnson said. "Owens was a black man going where he was truly detested. Where he had every reason to be fearful. (Adolf) Hitler the rotten racist tried to stare Jesse down.

"Owens often competed two or three times per day in the Berlin Olympics. Still, he won four gold medals. I am not the second coming of Jesse Owens. Impossible. Nobody ever will be."

In those Hitler Games of 60 years ago, the swift and courageous Owens won golds at 100 meters, 200 meters, in the long jump and as the blistering anchor on a world-record 4x100 relay.

During one seven-hour Berlin period, the gentle wonder from Ohio State managed to be the leading long jump qualifier, then won the 200-meter final, before reharnessing physical and mental energies to end a glorious day's work by dominating the long jump final. America cheered, Hitler sneered.

Jesse, incomparable indeed.

Nonetheless, Johnson is halfway home to Atlanta majesty. Writing his own modern pages in the evolving Olympic chronicles. Michael is being marketed like no American track athlete ever. More than Carl Lewis.

Looking for a double dip International Olympic Committee policymakers, now more than ever plunged into American-style marketing and money-pumping, did Johnson a favor by altering Atlanta's schedule to allow the gold shoes more rest between races. Johnson has been given the ultimate opportunity to pull off a 400-200 double.

"Sure, they have done me a scheduling favor," Johnson said, "but I hope it is also for the overall good of the Atlanta Olympics. It increases the pressure. My double has become expected by many people. It will not be easy. But pressure is something that makes me thrive. It motivates me; fuels me. I have a huge opportunity. I have no intention of messing it up."