US sprint hurdler Allen Johnson (© AFP / Getty Images)
The brilliant performances at 60m hurdles this indoor season by Grant Holloway, topped by his world record of 7.29 in Madrid last week, has led to speculation that the 23-year-old US athlete could threaten the world record for 110m hurdles of 12.80 set by Aries Merritt in September 2012 a month after claiming the Olympic gold medal in London in 12.92. Those twin peaks ensure Merritt a prominent place in the event's history ... but his reign at the top was brief. So who can be regarded as THE all-time great of sprint hurdling?
Step forward Allen Johnson, who today celebrates his 50th birthday.
Admittedly he never held the world record, although at the 1996 US Olympic Trials in Atlanta he suffered the frustration of missing Colin Jackson's record by just 0.01 with 12.92, a time he repeated in Brussels two months later. The wind reading for Jackson's 12.91 was 0.5m/s, while Johnson's pair of near misses were assisted to the tune of 0.9m/s and 0.2m/s respectively.
The following year, Johnson won the world title in Athens in 12.93 with the wind gauge registering zero – intrinsically perhaps the best run of them all. Incidentally, the spikes from that victory are on long-term loan to the World Athletics Heritage Collection.
Such was Johnson's high-level consistency that to this day he remains the most prolific sub-13-second performer. Between 1995 and 2006 he posted 11 such times; the next best tally is nine by David Oliver between 2008 and 2015. And nobody can match Johnson's 14 consecutive years ranked in the world's top 10.
As we look at Johnson's career in more detail, it will become increasingly apparent that no one in his event has achieved so much success over such a long period.
Born in Washington DC on 1 March 1971, Johnson wasn't anything special in his early days, his best time at 20 being 14.11. It was four years later, in 1995, that he first set the world of hurdling alight. Athletics International ranked him No.1 globally on account of not only winning the world indoor and outdoor titles in Barcelona and Gothenburg respectively, but later registering the only sub-13 time of the year with 12.98.
The sign of a great competitor, at least since the World Championships were inaugurated in 1983, is to win both a world title and an Olympic gold medal and Johnson obliged at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. After setting a North American and near world record of 12.92 at the US Olympic Trials, he was crowned champion in the Olympic record time of 12.95, despite toppling eight of the 10 hurdles. Canada's Mark McKoy had won in 1992, prompting Johnson at home watching the race on television to predict he would succeed him four years later, and so he did ... thus restoring the event to 'normality' as the 19th US winner in the 23 Games since 1896 that had been contested by a US team.
World ranked No.1 for the third year running, the highlight of his 1997 season was the successful defence of his world title in Athens in that wind-free 12.93. There were no gold medals for US athletes to chase in 1998 but winning in Zürich in the year's quickest time of 12.98 sufficed for a fourth top world ranking.
The sequence was interrupted in 1999. A 13.01 victory in Rome in his last race before the World Championships in Seville augured well for his chances but he strained a calf muscle warming up for his semi-final and withdrew, his title passing to Colin Jackson in 13.04.
Again, in 2000, he looked to be on course for a successful defence of his Olympic title in Sydney after winning the US Trials in the year's fastest time of 12.97, but once more injury struck at a crucial time as he pulled up with a hamstring injury at a meeting in Yokohama two weeks before the Games. Far from his dynamic best, he placed fourth in the Olympic final in 13.23, 0.01 away from a bronze medal, as Anier Garcia, whom Johnson had beaten in Lausanne and Zürich, struck gold in 13.00. The final was on the same day as Cathy Freeman's 400m coronation and the crowd numbered an unprecedented 112,524.
More determined than ever after two medal-less years, Johnson – now 30 –experienced the profound satisfaction of dipping ahead of García to recapture the world title in Edmonton, his time of 13.04 topping the 2001 year list.
He was by no means finished yet. Ranked second to García in the off year of 2002, he enjoyed a near perfect season in 2003, starting with the world indoor title in Birmingham, then winning 14 of his 15 outdoor races, topping the world list with 12.97 but more importantly claiming a record fourth world title in Paris. In the understatement of his career, he admitted it was “not the best race I've ever run”. In fact, he clipped all 10 barriers but still ran 13.12! Perhaps being blind in his left eye contributed to his habit of knocking down more hurdles than anyone else, although it rarely prevented him from winning.
The Olympic season of 2004 was looking promising as Johnson started by successfully defending his world indoor title in Budapest. He then edged Chinese sensation Liu Xiang in Rome, 13.11 for both, but at the Games in Athens he fell heavily in his heat, leaving the way clear for Liu to win the gold medal in a world record-equalling 12.91.
Johnson was merit ranked second in the world that year, third in 2005 (reflecting his bronze medal at the World Championships) and second in 2006, winning at the World Cup in 12.96, a world age-35 best. His career then gradually wound down: 13.23 in 2007, 13.32 in 2008, 13.43 in 2009. His final global accolade was a silver medal at the 2008 World Indoor Championships.
When Johnson clocked his indoor best of 7.36 in 2004 at the age of 33, it had only ever been bettered by Colin Jackson's 7.30 and would stand as a North American record until Grant Holloway ran 7.35 15 years later.
Oh, and in case you assumed Johnson's talents were confined to the hurdles, bear in mind that he ran 100m in a wind-aided 10.10 and 200m in 20.26, high jumped 2.11m and long jumped 8.14m, and even ran in the 4x400m relay at the 1997 World Championships, clocking a relaxed looking 46.40!
What an athlete.
Mel Watman for World Athletics Heritage