Michael Johnson had not yet been alive for a year when Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood atop the 1968 Olympic podium in Mexico City with their gloved fists in the air in salute of Black Power, a defining moment of activism in sport and one they proceeded with despite knowing it would cost them so much. As he grew up and began an athletics career that would yield four Olympic gold medals, Johnson initially only had a “vague” familiarity with his Games forefathers.
That changed in his late teens as he began to study all of the great sprinters before him, searching for nuggets of insight he could learn to further himself. His eyes naturally fell on Smith, one of the few sprinters who was special in both 200m and 400m. Studying Smith’s stride pattern naturally led him on to the 1968 Olympics, and what he learned about Smith and Carlos left him “in awe” of the decisions they made a year after he was born.
“It was very interesting for me, reading about that, putting myself in their position: ‘Would I have had the courage to do what they did?’” he says, speaking via a Zoom interview. “And then hearing about, as an athlete myself, knowing the opportunity I had; I was still a college athlete when I was learning about their history. Knowing that my dream was to be an Olympic champion – these were Olympic athletes who came home and were punished, couldn’t find jobs, were treated with disdain, hate and getting death threats.”
Those days in the early 80s would mark the start of an ongoing education for Johnson that led him to this point, as on Thursday he releases a documentary-style podcast series called Defiance, in which he holds conversations with numerous athletes and experts to explore both the well-known and more obscure stories of those who make a stand within their sports, from Smith and Carlos to Billie Jean King, Colin Kaepernick and Muhammad Ali.
As an athlete, Johnson was not known for his activism. He says he grew up supporting political candidates and participating in protest marches while at college, but that his competitive days came during a period when, apart from specific issues such as boycotting apartheid in South Africa, the intersection between sport and politics was not as clear then as it is now. In this time of social media and the internet, two decades on from his career, Johnson has come to understand how he can utilise those spaces. He pinpoints Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was killed by three white men while simply jogging in Georgia in February 2020 as a catalyst for him to become more active on social media.
“This was the first time I decided to really use my social media platform to speak out against that sort of issue and to be in support of him and his family,” says Johnson. “But I think it’s just a different situation now where there are so many opportunities to use your platform that you have. Whereas when I was an athlete with no social media, it didn’t matter whether it was trying to achieve any sort of justice or just trying to build a brand, we had to rely on traditional media which is much more difficult.“
One of the questions that Johnson says he has always asked himself is why athletes evoke a stronger negative reaction than other celebrities when they are outspoken on human rights and political issues. As an example, he points out the high number of black athletes in many prominent sports: “The consensus [from his interviews] is that there are a lot of people in society that feel that these athletes should count themselves lucky.
“Because if you’re a minority living in America or in the UK and you’re a professional athlete, making millions of dollars and living a very good life, one that has traditionally been reserved for white people, you should be lucky and how dare you speak up. How dare you use this platform that you have been given. How dare you turn on us and use that against us. That’s just one example of how we’ve gotten to this point.”
While people in the past knew him as the good, more palatable black person, now he gets people calling his office to express their displeasure for his own opinions or else for supporting athletes such as Gwen Berry, the US hammer thrower who protested against the national anthem.
With the new podcast series, he anticipates more criticism to come from those who disagree. But he retains a positive outlook, underlining that he feels the future of athlete protest has been glimpsed in how the WNBA professionals have organised to make palpable change with initiatives ranging from stopping players being fined for wearing anti-violence shirts in 2016 to Atlanta Dream players helping to elect Raphael Warnock as governor over Republican Kelly Loeffler, their former owner.
“They ultimately got their league to drop their fines,” he says. “They also took it one step further and got involved in a political campaign and they were a success. I think you’re going to see protest where athletes are going to the centres of power, whether that be their own league, their own employers or getting directly involved in political campaigns.”
Meanwhile, on the field of play, one of the most interesting developments in athletics has been the growing prominence of women sprinters. It was Elaine Thompson-Herah and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce who stole the attention in Tokyo and had thousands tuning into far less important meets to see them duel, not their male counterparts. Johnson says the heightened attention is a result of both historic performances, but also part of a shifting trend not only in athletics.
“There’s been an imbalance for so long and I think there’s been a recognition by some that there has been that imbalance,” he says. “If you tell people that men’s sports are more interesting, they’re going to believe that. But if at some point you start to present the other side, women’s sports, more, you find that people are interested in it because now they have exposure to it. I think that’s a bit of what we’re seeing.”
Johnson names Thompson-Herah, Athing Mu and Karsten Warholm as the most impressive performers he has seen this year. At a time when the 400m hurdles races have been as enchanting as any other athletics event, with Warholm (45.94sec) and Sydney McLaughlin (51.46) both running world record times in Tokyo that would not look out of place in flat 400m races, he believes it is possible for the event to seize attention at a time when far more prominent ones are not in quite as great shape.
“There is nothing to say that Karsten Warholm and his performances in that event, Rai Benjamin who is right there with him, can make that event one of the prominent events,” he says. “Certainly on the men’s side because right now, the traditional marquee events – the men’s 100m, 200m and 400m – those events are not nearly as exciting as the men’s 400m hurdles.”
The past few years have been a time of great change for Johnson, who unexpectedly suffered a stroke in 2018. Once the fastest man in history across both 200m and 400m, at one point he was unable to walk unaided. The event itself was shocking and recovery was mentally arduous but he says he now enjoys the same life he lived before the stroke. He credits being an athlete as an enormous advantage in his recovery. Rather than his return to form, he takes more fulfillment from how he has helped others who have suffered strokes since.
“It’s been very rewarding trying to help others as they go through the same process but who don’t have the benefit of having been an athlete and understanding those marginal gains, how important it is to stay motivated every day,” he says. “And then also trying to bring awareness to people, so that they can hopefully prevent a stroke.”
Over the 20 years since Johnson became an Olympic gold medallist for the final time at 33 years old, he has transitioned gracefully into retirement, becoming a popular and insightful broadcaster while he has found satisfaction in a variety of avenues. He says he remains as goal-driven as he was as an athlete, but now those efforts are channelled into his businesses as well as other exploits such as Defiance.
“At this point, as I’m now into my 50s …” he says, laughing. “Just taking every day as it comes and trying to balance it a bit more as opposed to years ago when I was an athlete and focused on: ‘What’s next? What’s the next thing to conquer?’ A little more balanced now.”
Defiance with Michael Johnson, an Audible original podcast, is available now at www.audible.uk/defiance