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Taking that first step into history

William Tecumseh Sherman marched through Georgia in 1864, leaving the Atlanta track scorched. Now, 132 years later, Michael Johnson is burning his way through the town. Blurring in boots of gold, winning a Monday night medal to match.

History is half-made.

Johnson exterminated his 400-meter opposition. Like a golden breeze, he whipped around Olympic Stadium. A lap of 43.49 seconds. In a century of Olympics, the fastest ever.

For a 55th consecutive time, Johnson won at 400 meters. "I was running for second," said silver medalist Roger Black of England. "It was my highest possibility. Nobody will ever beat Michael at 400 meters. Not unless he falls down or until he grows old."

Flashbulbs winked by the thousands as the smooth, powerful Michael Machine was in golden orbit. Once the conquest was assured, Johnson took another, far slower lap.

Grabbing a U.S. flag from a spectator, he took a soaking, smiling, jubilating four minutes to stroll an extra 400 meters. Eighty-two thousand people couldn't quit shouting, applauding and marveling.

"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 with all-but-zero body fat, was favored in the 400 and 200. He didn't attempt the 400, choosing to concentrate on the 200. But he ate some rotten Spanish sausage and got food poisoning. Long before prime time, a wincing Johnson would be eliminated in qualifying heats.

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

Halfway there.

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

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. "It can happen twice," Fredericks said. "Nobody is unbeatable."

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

"That's great," he said in a less than enthusiastic tone. Reporters chuckled at the apparent lack of Johnson sincerity. "No, it's good," the 400-meter demon added. Nobody was buying the plastic plaudits. Michael, like too many from the fraternity of human speed, is not an applauder of Lewis. Johnson clearly would rather not have shared Monday night glory with the old guy from Texas.

That's sad. I do not suggest that Michael Johnson should be doing cartwheels over Lewis' last hurrah. But how can any person who admires enduring athletic conquest, who appreciates a long-lasting ability to excel a la Reggie Jackson or Muhammad Ali at such a moment, not raise arms in salute to King Carl?

Can MJ be jealous?

I'm afraid so.

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! No! No! I can't buy that. It's like trying to compare artists or actors of different ages; measuring a modern LeRoy Neiman against a classic Claude Monet, or today's film works of a Tom Hanks against the bygone excellence of a Sir Laurence Olivier.

Impossible. Ludicrous.

Johnson is a talent extraordinaire, but Michael 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."

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 considerable pages in evolving Olympic chronicles. To be filed along with the histories of Owens and Lewis.

Michael is being marketed like no American track athlete ever. But to merit such acclaim, he needs the double golden dip. King Carl, a man who seizes The Moment, would not fumble any such opportunity.