Michael Johnson on racism, Usain Bolt and Jesse Owens

History-making sprinter Michael Johnson discusses racism in the USA, the current tensions, his athletics and Olympic career, Usain Bolt, Jesse Owens and far more in a wide-ranging interview.

Speaking as a guest on the latest Will Greenwood Podcast episode, Johnson spoke to Rupert Cox and Will Greenwood about some of the forefront topics of today, both in society and sport, as well as looking back in time.

It would be remiss of us not to ask about the situation in the US at the moment. There is widespread unrest after the death of George Floyd. How are you feeling about everything that’s going on in the USA right now?

“It’s really important to understand the context, and to try to understand what’s going on, it’s very complex. It’s not one of those simple narratives,” Johnson says.

“We’ve had institutionalised racism in this county for many, many years. It finds its way into black people’s lives on a daily basis. What we’ve seen over the last several weeks is three separate situations where black people have been murdered, two by police in two separate instances and then one by an ex-police officer and his son – the case of Ahmaud Arbery, who was out running and some citizens of that neighbourhood thought he may be a burglar, chased him down and murdered him.

“Then we had a situation which is more representative of what we see every day in America with what black people experience. A black man was in central park in New York, an avid bird watcher, in an area that is protected for birds. He was there birdwatching, a white woman had her dog off the leash, which is against the rules. He asked her to leash her dog. She decided she would call the police on him and attempt to convince the police that a black man was attacking her, and she told him she was going to do this.

“Fortunately he caught it all on video, and it just showed the privilege of white people in our society, and how that is used against black people and all of this has conspired to create a great deal of anger in America. Not just with black people but with white people as well, who see that this isn’t just and hasn’t been dealt with over decades, for a century and a half and it’s all playing out in cities across the country.

“It’s hard for people to understand, I get that, if it’s not obvious to you that’s understandable, but I think that one of the best messages I’ve heard is that if it’s not obvious to you what’s going on and it’s difficult for you to understand, sit this one out. Don’t try to judge it, don’t try to impart your opinion on it. Some things are just difficult to understand, just accept that one and sit this one out if it’s not obvious to you and you are struggling to understand it.”

Is it important for high-profile sporting personalities such as yourself to take a stand?

“I’ve been asked that question over years about whether athletes have a responsibility, or celebrities or prominent people should speak out on these issues. My position has always been if you feel you can help, and you are compelled to do so, then do so but no one should pressure other people into something they are not comfortable with.

“Today my position is completely different. If you are silent you are complicit. We are at that point. You have people out there, young people, old people, black people, white people, Asian, Hispanic, all different cultures and backgrounds, out there fighting, out there making sure this issue is being brought to prominence where everyone is paying attention to what is really happening in this country and how people are suffering.

“If you have a platform you owe it to those people, you owe it to those people whose lives have been lost. You owe it to our ancestors who fought during the civil rights movement back in the 1960s, you owe it to all of them.

“If you have this position like I do, if you have a prominent position, benefiting from the hard work of all those people to have what you have like I do and to have the platform that you have, you owe it to all of them to not be silent.”

What is the role sport can play in helping this situation?

“Sport has always been such an incredible and powerful tool for change and bringing people together, we know that.

“What a lot of prominent athletes are doing now is, we have leagues. We have Nike putting out a very powerful ad over the weekend that was then retweeted by Adidas, which is amazing to see that unity around an issue that highlights it’s bigger than anything else. This is bigger than sport, but sport has that power. I think what we are seeing now is the appropriate move.

“Obviously, sport is in a little bit of a hiatus right now, and starting to come back, and when it does one of the most powerful things we could see is a reversal of what we saw a few years ago when Colin Kaepernick highlighted this very issue by kneeling, other NFL players joined him and the NFL basically silenced that out of fear that it might alienate some of the other viewers and supporters of the NFL.

“I think if we see a reversal of that and see the NFL lean into that protest and being a catalyst for – one of the biggest issues that we are talking about today – the relationship between the black community and the police. Being a catalyst that can bring the police and black community together, athletes can bring that together.

“I’ve seen on many occasions situations where you have police who are fans of sport, fans of football, community members, gang members who might be fans of football, being brought together through that sport.

“That can be one of the things that can happen with this. Within all of the violence and protests and looting and riots, we are seeing Sheriffs departments and police taking a knee with protesters and marching with protesters.

“There was a situation just the other day where one Sheriff asked: ‘What can I do?’, and they said: ‘March with us’. And he marched with them. We are seeing some progress but this is only the beginning.”

Does this feel like a watershed moment? Does it feel like we have been in this position before but this is different? Could there be lasting change?

“This is the most widespread attention given to this issue in my adult life. Back in 1993 there was the Rodney King Los Angeles riots. That was when police beat Rodney King and it was all caught on video. LA erupted in riots and fires in a similar situation to this, but by and large it was unique to Los Angeles.

“But I have not seen this in my lifetime, these countrywide protests and attention to this issue. It could be a prominent moment where we can bring about change that so many people in this county want. It is a moment where we have a President who has sought to divide this country and has been quite successful in bringing about a great deal of division in a country.

“We have a very unique situation in this country about how we elect a president. The majority of the people, in terms of volume, in terms of the sheer numbers of people, did not vote for this President – but we have a system here with the electoral college that allows him to become President, even though most people in this country did not want him to.

“I say that because most people in this country, despite the fact he is our President and he is dividing us and supporting a lot of that element, want to see equality. They want to see people who are poor and disadvantaged and who this coronavirus is affecting disproportionately, taken care of. Most people want to see that.

“But unfortunately we have this situation which people are sick and tired of, this is a moment that could very well serve to reverse a lot of that. But people see that, in this country, we are very much on a track that they don’t agree with, not just black people, black, white and many other people from different backgrounds see we are on a track that we are not happy with.”

In your own sporting career, you became a world and Olympic champion at the 200m and 400m. Did you ever compete or think about competing in the 100m?

“In track and field, the sprint events are so specific and the talent lies so specifically in those different areas, that you will find where your talent lies and which one of those events works for you.

“Typically, It’s the 100m and maybe the 200m a little bit, or you’re a 200m runner who can a little bit of the 100m, but before I started my career, there were very few people who could run the 200m and the 400m and bring those together, and that’s what made me so unique.

“Because it had rarely been done before and certainly hadn’t been done at the level of Olympic and World Championship medals, that’s what intrigued me so much about it.

“I had a unique ability to run them both. I went through my career at the start thinking I want to be a world champion at 200m, but there’s always a world champion at 200m, nobody’s ever been the world champion at 200m and 400m.

“So after I won my first 200m World Championship, I set my sights on becoming a 400m world champion and made history by becoming the first person to do that.

“Then I thought, I wonder if I can do it both in the same championship together, and in 1995 I was able to do that. Then of course the next natural thing was to do it at the Olympics, and then break the world record in both.

“And all of those things were firsts, they had never been done. That’s what was driving me, motivating me.

“I never had motivation to try and be a 100m runner, or to add the 100m to that, that would have been incredible, to be a world champion at the 100m, 200m and 400m. But I didn’t have that talent.

“I think Usain Bolt could have done that and I tried to convince him to do it but he didn’t want to. The 400m is tough and he knew how that training was going to go and he didn’t want to do it, but I think he could have been a world champion or maybe even an Olympic champion at all three events.

“Which would have been incredible.”

Who inspired you in your career?

“As I got into my career and started to spend a lot of time really studying the sprinters that had come before me, Jesse Owens became a real inspiration for me.

“Before there was a Carl Lewis in the 100m, 200m and long jump, there was a Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin winning all three of those gold medals.

“He was the first person to do that but also we just literally two weeks ago had the anniversary of when he broke four world records in the span of 45 minutes, in the 100m, 200m, long jump and the 200m hurdles they had back then. It was just amazing.

“An incredible athlete, but also what he represented. We started the conversation talking about race relationships and regulations here in America, and he went to the 1936 Olympics and proved that black people can go and be amazing athletes and proved Adolf Hitler wrong at his own Olympics.

“He came back to the USA and didn’t get quite the reception that he deserved initially because of his skin colour, but ultimately became a real hero here in America, and always handled it with dignity and grace.

“I was very fortunate to get to meet his widow and get to know her well and one of the best compliments I ever got was she came to the 1996 Olympic trials in Atalanta, saw me run and said to me that watching me run reminded her of Jesse, and for me that was amazing.

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