He may be the fastest human, but he can't outrun the press

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 May, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 May, 1997, 12:00am

Fame does not quite have the acceleration to overtake Michael Johnson but it came close enough to trip him up in Rio de Janeiro last week.

The winner of the 200 and 400 metres at the Atlanta Olympics did not fancy hanging about for an impromptu media session at his beachside hotel so he brushed his way past the waiting inquisitors. Alas, in the melee, a young fan who wanted a picture taken with his American hero was also rudely rebuffed.

It's the sort of incident that happens every day when the famous come face-to-face with their renown. Autograph hunters can become very aggressive in their search for that elusive, often illegible, squiggle, and there comes a stage when even the most co-operative of sportsmen push away the probing pens, pencils and pieces of paper.

Unfortunately for Johnson, the young Brazilian fan burst into tears in front of the assembled press. Denied access to Johnson, they seized on the story of little boy blue and literally overnight the American athlete became a hated figure in Brazil.

He was jeered before and after winning the 200 metres during the Grand Prix meeting, treatment he had never experienced before.

It came as a bit of a shock to the system for a man who has carefully built up his image as a caring, sharing sort of guy.

'I've never had any problem like this before. I am welcomed in Asia, in America and in Europe,' said a troubled Johnson. 'I have always had an excellent image everywhere I go.' To make matters worse for Johnson, the devilish Donovan Bailey was stoking up anti-American fires at the same Rio meeting.

Bailey, the Olympic 100 metres champion who represents Canada, is seemingly still ired by the outpouring of putrid patriotism at the Atlanta Games.

'I just think there was a huge lack of respect for all the non-American athletes who won medals in Atlanta. Look at the case of [Irish swimmer] Michelle Smith,' he said. 'All those athletes were there doing their best but they did not get the recognition they deserved simply because they were not Americans.' Bailey, obviously aware of the predicament Johnson had found himself in, then buttered up the local populace by saying that Rio was a brilliant place and he 'could live in Brazil'.

Now it so happens that Johnson and Bailey will be facing each other in a much-hyped race over 150 metres on June 1 to determine 'the world's fastest man'.

With the showdown being held in Toronto, Bailey will not be short of home support and his Rio rant will have seen his popularity soar in Canada.

He is their champion and who cares if he cynically took advantage of the mess Johnson found himself in to do a handy piece of self-promotion? As for Johnson, an incident that normally would not have merited a mention in the press has been given exposure worldwide and planted seeds of doubt about his golden boy reputation.

You can rest assured he won't be pushing aside any young fans in Toronto - fame is too close to his heels for that.