Michael Johnson: sprinter
Prime Airtime: 400-meter finals (July 29); 200-meter finals (Aug. 1); 4-by-400-meter relay (Aug. 3)
Why You Should Watch Him: Because, as he demands, ”I want all eyes on me.” And because his brashness is warranted: Johnson is trying to become the first male runner to win both the 200 and 400 meters — two very different footraces — in the same Olympics, and that makes him the best bet to become the Games’ biggest star. Even the Olympic organizers appreciate his marquee potential. Last March, track officials altered the Olympic schedule so Johnson could take a shot at the double gold.
Johnson — a 28-year-old, 6’1”, 183-pound package of pure power — is currently riding a winning streak as intimidating as his top speed of 25 miles per hour: 21 straight victories at 200 meters, 53 at 400. At the Olympic trials last month, Johnson ran the 200 in a stunning 19.66 seconds, shattering a world record that had stood for 17 years.
Johnson wears a diamond earring, but it seems out of place; he has been accused of having a charisma deficiency by no less than Carl Lewis. It is a measure of just how good Johnson is that he earns more than $1 million a year in endorsements and prize money without getting into trouble, embedding tattoos all over his body, or dating supermodels. ”I just run,” he says. When you run like Michael Johnson, it’s enough.
The Essential Athlete: Johnson loves fast cars (a ’91 ‘Vette convertible is one of his favorites), food that is bad for him (fried catfish, chocolate), and a punishing training regimen. He is, perhaps, as single-minded an athlete as you’ll see in Atlanta.
Brooke Bennett: swimmer
Prime Airtime: In the 800-meter freestyle (July 24-25)
Why You Should Watch Her: Because everyone enjoys a good name-calling, backbiting blood feud, and Bennett’s got a bitter one going with pool legend Janet Evans. Evans, 24, the greatest female distance swimmer ever, already has four gold medals as she heads into her third and final Olympics. Bennett, 16, already a six-time U.S. national champion, has chutzpah. In March 1995, when Evans skipped the Pan Am Games, Bennett taunted, ”She knows there’s someone coming up to take her place.” Bennett subsequently beat Evans three times in a meet and offered, ”I’m sure Janet was a little disappointed.” Evans later sniped, ”When I was 15, I had two world records.” And more recently, Evans admitted: ”Yes, she hurt my feelings a little. I used to help her with her homework at meets.”
This past March, Bennett finished first and Evans second in the 800 meters at the Olympic trials. They will be ranked one-two in the world when they hit the water in Atlanta. If it’s not the Olympic ideal, it sure makes for an ideal Olympic duel.
The Essential Athlete: At night, Bennett sleeps with a potbellied pig named Noelle. Also roaming around her Plant City, Fla., homestead are a dachshund, a rottweiler, a cat, a horse, a donkey, and three cows. Shockingly enough, when she grows up, Bennett wants to be a veterinarian.