In Beijing in 2008, the eight men lined up for the 100m were rippling elite athletes. They were also all black, and, according to Olympic icon Michael Johnson, all descended from slave families.
Michael Johnson is one of history's great Olympians - but where did he get his speed?
This single fact inspired Johnson to take viewers on a journey into his own past, and a bigger exploration of the link between slavery and speed.
Johnson was the perfect fit. As well as being one of the most celebrated athletes in the world, he is also a television natural with an authoritative voice ready for duty whenever Morgan Freeman is ready to down tools.
It all got a bit Who Do You Think You Are On The Track? as Johnson was allowed to wallow in his own family’s personal history, interesting though it was, with his ancient’s relative Irella Battle’s personal memoir of slavery, and then sudden freedom.
Michael Johnson in full flight
He just about kept it relevant, though, drawing analogies between Irella’s battle, and his own world-class abilities to be disciplined, push himself on and just be the best.
More interesting was the science behind the story, as geneticists explained the dreadful impact on immigrants of their lives on slave ships, but also the way this speeded up evolution and triggered change.
From a black sporting star, this was far more palatable than when it was mooted previously, and the science backed him up. What Johnson called “a mass murderer of the weakest” – Darwin at his rawest – some geneticists explained coolly as a trigger for accelerated evolutionary change.
Johnson's prowess has come, possibly at a price
While Johnson noted the conditions that his family share – diabetes, certain cancers – it seemed that those who survived these hardships were stronger, more testerone-filled, more ready for an Olympic games generally.
All of this seems a bit obvious, really, but I guess it needs explaining, and Johnson did a fine job – it wasn’t his fault the camera insisted on tracking his lengthy reflections on him constantly.
Most moving of all, though, was the footage of Johnson’s own hero, Jesse Owens, in action at Berlin in 1936. Himself the grandson of a slave, Owens pushed for an Olympics boycott but was over-ruled, so he took matters into his own hands and ran and jumped his way all over Hitler’s aspirations of Aryan dominancy. How beautifully, tragically ironic.
One of the two men who held up his fist for the Black Power Salute in Mexico 1968, John Carlos, recently told HuffPostUK that “the Olympics is always political. Everything is political”. So Johnson reminded us again, just in time for London’s first starting gun to be fired.
Michael Johnson in action below...
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