Four-time Olympic champion gives his verdict for athlete of the year
There is no hesitation from Michael Johnson when he is asked to name his athletes of the year for 2021. To the four-time Olympic gold medallist, Elaine Thompson-Herah and Karsten Warholm comfortably stand out from the chasing pack.
Voting for the annual AW Readers’ Choice Awards is open and you can give your verdict across a number of categories but, when it comes to the destination of the International Athlete of Year, Johnson knows who he’d be opting for.
“On the women’s side for me it’s Elaine Thompson-Herah,” says the cover star of the November issue of AW magazine. “I think what she did this year was just unbelievable. It’s her, hands down.
“Maybe second would be Sifan Hassan. What she did this year [winning 10,000m gold, 5000m gold and 1500m bronze at the Tokyo Olympics] was pretty impressive but Elaine was amazing.”
Thompson-Herah did indeed blaze a trail across women’s sprinting, successfully defending her Olympic 100m and 200m titles in Tokyo, winning 4x100m relay gold into the bargain, and then running 10.54, the second-fastest women’s 100m time in history.
“The competition in the 100m and 200m this year was definitely at a high level,” adds Johnson. “She responded to the competition, won the medals, but also the times she was running…
“To start to threaten Florence Griffith Joyner’s record, which has stood for so long and has such strong arguments around it, tells your everything about how impressive she was this year.”
Johnson was there on the day “Flo-Jo” clocked 10.49 at the 1988 US Trials in Indianapolis which still stands as the world record, a performance which many have questioned – not least because of the helpful windy conditions that day.
Thompson-Herah did succeed the controversial American as Olympic record-holder when running 10.61 in the 100m final in Tokyo but could she become world record-holder in 2022?
“Part of me says yes because she got close to it this year and was still consistent, but sometimes you’ve got to do it in the year when you’re there,” says Johnson, the former 200m and 400m world record-holder who knows all too well how difficult creating history can be.
“1995 was my year for the 400m. I ran 43.39, 43.41, I was all around that 43.29 [Butch Reynolds’ then world record] and it took me another four years to get back to that point [running 43.18 at the 1999 World Championships in Seville] so if you don’t do it in that year…
“And she’s just changed coaches [having left long-time coach Stephen Francis] so who knows what effect that’s going to have.”
One person who did land themselves a world record – twice – in 2021 was Olympic 400m hurdles champion Warholm. The Norwegian broke Kevin Young’s long-standing mark with a run of 46.70 at the Diamond League meeting in Oslo before producing one of the great Olympic performances, winning Tokyo gold in an astonishing time of 45.94 and holding off fierce competition from American Rai Benjamin and Brazilian Alison Dos Santos.
“What he [Warholm] did was impressive, but with the competition that he had as well, it was amazing,” says Johnson.
It was a run which had a number of people asking if the two-time world champion who possesses a huge personality to go with his innate athletic ability could be the star the sport has been looking for since the retirement of Usain Bolt. Johnson, however, suggests that that question is thought-provoking in itself.
“No one’s going to be Usain Bolt, but someone’s going to be the next biggest name in the sport and I think that, by all accounts, he [Warholm] should be,” says the American.
“But it’ll be interesting. The fact that he’s not a sprinter and that he’s from Norway, and not [somewhere like] the UK or the US, something tells me that that has an effect.
“Hearing that question, ‘who’s the next Usain Bolt?’ and Karsten Warholm is doing all of the things that he is and he is still the person that he is and we’re still asking a question, that tells you everything you need to know.”
» Michael Johnson’s new podcast Defiance: The History of Protest in Sport is now available to download exclusively here
» To order your copy of the November issue of AW, in which Michael Johnson discusses everything from the health of athletics to the power of the athlete voice, click here
» To vote in this year’s AW Readers’ Awards, click here
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