Physical Education - Michael Johnson gives students a sprint start

The US athlete tells TES why young people need elite training

Richard Vaughan

It wasn't until Michael Johnson was 14 that he finally decided he wanted to be a sprinter. Before then, he played every sport that was available to him: soccer, American football, baseball and basketball.

Growing up in Texas, Johnson found that sport was unavoidable; participating in a range of activities enabled him finally to settle on athletics. It turned out to be a good decision.

"It is something we don't get much of now because athletes specialise early," the four-time Olympic gold medallist told TES. "I benefited from playing all different kinds of sports. That's where I found my passion for athletics. It's how you find what you're really gifted at and what you really enjoy.

"Ultimately, when I reached 14, I stopped playing all the other sports and focused on athletics because that is where I found I was really talented, and where I was really passionate. It didn't hurt that I was better than everybody, too."

As he stood in his tracksuit, sharing words of wisdom with a gaggle of awkward-looking British school students, it didn't take a great deal of imagination to picture Johnson back on the track, streets ahead of his nearest competitors. The unmistakable pigeon chest is still there and, despite his 45 years, he looked as though he could give many of the current crop of Olympic athletes a run for their money.

The former 200m and 400m sprinter was in the UK to open the latest franchise of his elite training business, Michael Johnson Performance, which will operate out of the England Football Association's state-of-the-art national centre St George's Park, in Burton-on-Trent.

Johnson's training programmes are already used by Formula 1 drivers and Arsenal Football Club to help give them the edge when they are performing. Now they are to be opened up to school students.

Aspiring athletes will be able to attend camps lasting between three and four days, where they will be put through intense training regimes.

The move comes as the legacy left by last year's Olympics in London is being hotly debated in the UK. The Games had promised to inspire young people to lead more active, sporting lives, but serious concerns have been raised that the impact has failed to live up to the promise.

Johnson believes it is vital for these kinds of high-quality programmes to be on offer to young people at a time when physical education in many schools is failing to deliver.

"What we're doing is to help athletes have this opportunity at a time when they, particularly in the US, are having less and less access to physical education," he said. "Those kinds of programmes are being cut and it's important that someone is stepping in to fill that void."

Similar concerns about the quality of PE exist in the UK. The government has announced a #163;300 million two-year package for school sport, but calls have been made for a longer-term plan.

"I think we have to make it a priority in the schools and in the curriculum," Johnson said. "I see situations in the States where there is PE and it's just ticking a box and you see kids just walking around the track and that's their PE for the day. I think that's ridiculous. We have to do better as a society and demand more from our programmes."

The sprinter understands the challenges that teachers face: his mother taught in an elementary school and both his sisters are school administrators. But he added: "It's a widespread problem and you don't have to have teachers in your family to know what they are dealing with."

When it came to his own school days, Johnson's overachievements on the track were not always equalled in the classroom, but he was fortunate in being bright enough to pass without too much effort and go on to university.

But his ambitions were always on the track. And while the London legacy is in doubt, Johnson's own is secure. His world record in the 400m is unbroken, and many believe untouchable.

"That's why I stopped doing what I was doing," he said. "I'd reached all my goals. I'd done everything I had set out to do."

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Richard Vaughan

Richard has been writing about politics, policy and technology in education for nearly five years after joining TES in 2008. He joined TES from the building press having been a reporter and then later news editor at the Architects’ Journal. Before then he studied at Cardiff University’s school of journalism. Richard can be found tweeting at @richardvaughan1

Find me on Twitter @RichardVaughan1

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