This Day In History: August 1

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On August 1, 1996, sprinter Michael Johnson breaks the world record in the 200 meters to win gold at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Three days earlier, Johnson had also won the 400 meters, making him the first man in history to win both events at the Olympics.

Four years earlier at the Barcelona Olympics, Johnson had been the clear favorite to win the 200 meters until he came down with food poisoning 12 days before the race. Ten pounds lighter, Johnson didn’t recover his strength in time for the competition and lost in the qualifying rounds, a major disappointment for both him and the U.S. team. (Johnson did win gold, however, as a member of the world-record breaking 4 x 400 relay team in Barcelona.)

At the 1996 Olympics, things got off to a much better start. On July 29, sporting his now-famous thick gold chain and gold track shoes, he ran the 400 meters in a remarkable 43.49 seconds for a gold medal and a new Olympic record. And, as the reigning world record holder, Johnson was the heavy favorite for gold going into the 200 meter final despite a fast field. His two toughest were Frankie Fredericks of Namibia and Ato Boldon from Trinidad and Tobago. Johnson lined up in lane 3, and Fredericks, who had broken Johnson’s 22-race winning streak in the 200 on June 5, was positioned in lane 5, to Johnson’s outside. Boldon, who won bronze in the 100 meters in the 1992 Olympics, was in lane 6. At the gun Johnson stumbled slightly, but recovered quickly and passed Fredericks as they entered the first turn. Johnson then kicked it into high gear, beating his closest competition to the finish line by four strides.

After seeing his time, Johnson dropped to his hands and knees in disbelief, while Ato Boldon, who came in third behind Johnson and Fredericks, walked over to Johnson and bowed in awe. Analysis of the race later revealed that Johnson had run a 10.12 for the first 100 meters, and then blew away the field with a stunning 9.20 seconds for the last half of the race. His official time of 19.32 seconds shaved three tenths of a second off his own world record of 19.66–set six weeks prior at the Olympic trials–which had broken a 17-year-old mark.

On the same night that Johnson became the first man to win both the 200 and 400 meters in the Olympics, Marie-Jose Perec of France became the second woman to accomplish the feat. American Valerie Brisco-Hooks had won both races at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.