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  • Writer's pictureManfred Seidler

The day I met Michael Johnson

I have been immensely privileged to have met and interviewed some of the best athletes to have walked the planet. Athletes such as Jan Zelezny, long time world record holder, three times the gold medal winner at the Olympics and the World Championships in the Javelin; Gabriella Szabo, the diminutive Romanian who was a force on the global stage in the middle distances, a two-time world champion and an Olympic Champion in the 5000m; Marion Jones, before the fall from grace; Maria Mutola and Kelly Holmes to name but a few of the international stars who graced our shores. Let’s not forget our own stars, Llewellyn Herbert, the hurdling master; Frantz Kruger the gentle giant until he entered the discus circle; Hestrie Cloete, twice a world champion, twice an Olympic Silver medallist and Hezekiel Sepeng, World Champion and Olympic Silver medallist, and still SA 800m record holder. All of these athletes were easy to talk to, interview and get to know (within reason), during the heady days of the Engen Grand Prix Summer Series (a topic on its own and one for another day). More recently athletes such Akani Simbine, Caster Semenya and Wayde van Niekerk gave me the time to interview them. I make no secret of the fact that I have been truly fortunate in my media career in athletics.

A packed stadium of adoring South African track and field fans wait to see Michael Johnson in action. Photo Credit: Manfred Seidler.

But the one interview that had me quaking in my boots and as nervous as can be was that with the great Michael Johnson. Now Michael had this air of invincibility about him. He seemed aloof, but that was because I was truly in awe of this man when I met him in 2000. And I had an exclusive interview with him when he visited South Africa for that 2000 Engen Grand Prix Summer Series. This was a big deal. Johnson was the biggest name to have ever hit our shores and there was not a media house in the country who did not want a sit down interview with him. And I got it. No one else.

The then world record holder thrills the crowd with a sub 44 clocking in Cape Town. Photo Credit: Manfred Seidler.

To put that into perspective. I was 31 years old. Had been an admirer of this man for years; witnessed his World 400m record and World Championship title in 1999 live as I sat in the Stadium looking at the finish-line from high up in the media tribune. I had first seen him live in South Africa in 1994 (also at the Engen Grand Prix Summer Series). At that stage we all knew he was a superb athlete but had absolutely no idea how great Johnson would become. By the time he visited South Africa again in 2000, he had run that incredible 19.32sec 200m in Atlanta to destroy a field that included Top Runners of the calibre of Frankie Fredericks and Ato Boldon; went on to win the 400m title; had won five world championship titles (400m, 200m, 4x400m relay) and was the out and out favourite to win Olympic Gold in Sydney that year. He was a giant of the sport. And here was this young, green behind the ears producer who had been given the greatest opportunity of his two-year television career – to interview this living legend. Hell, yes was I nervous.

Johnson did not disappoint when he raced in South Africa in 2000. His first outing was the 200m in Polokwane (then Pietersburg) in the first Engen Grand Prix Meeting. Johnson blitzed a 19.71sec half lap. At that time only Johnson (twice) and Fredericks (once) had gone faster. This was on 18 March. Fast forward a week later to Pretoria and Johnson produced something special. He set the world best for 300m, scorching to 30.85sec. That mark would stand for 17 years when our very own Wayde van Niekerk lowered it to 30.81sec. But Johnson was not done with his SA Tour. He had promised to break 44sec for the 400m in the Final Leg of the Engen Grand Prix Summer Series. And he duly delivered. Both Polokwane and Pretoria were sold out, and Cape Town did not disappoint either. The spectators came out in their droves. And Johnson gave them a show. He crossed the line in 43.9sec (sadly the clock was not playing ball and the result is recorded as a hand time).

Johnson conducts a development clinic as part of the Engen Summer Series. Photo Credit: Manfred Seidler.

Now I got to interview this guy and damn I was nervous. We met up at the Southern Sun outside the Waterfront where all the athletes were staying. I won’t lie, there was knot in my stomach, my knees were weak and my hands were shaking. Both my camera man and I were star struck (to put this into perspective, only one other person has ever had me nervous when I interviewed him, at that was the great man himself, Nelson Mandela). It didn’t help matters when my camera man tried to break the ice by saying “my name is also Michael”. The look on Johnson’s face – well you had to be there. I was petrified of bumbling through this interview and making a hash of the greatest opportunity ever given me. That was until during the pre-interview briefing where I was outlining my questions, I mentioned how I’d interviewed Christie Gaynes and we laughed about people who could not understand that elite athletes also ate at McDonalds. That cracked him up and the interview went on for 30min. For those of you who are not familiar with doing interviews at such a level, that is the equivalent of spending 2 hours with someone doing an interview. You just do not get that kind of time. My year was made. I had had the incredible opportunity to interview one of the all-time sporting greats. In my home town to boot. And no one else in South Africa had that opportunity. A huge feather in my cap. A memory I treasure to this day.

Manfred Seidler has been in the media industry in athletics since 1994 having managed the media around a number of SA Track and Field Championships, SA Cross Country Championships and Road Championships. He also was the media account director on the hugely successful Engen Grand Prix Summer Series from 1995 to 1997 before being head hunted by the Television company Octagon CSI. Manfred founded the athletics TV Show Athletics Alive (later to become Engen Gijima) until the sponsor withdrew from the sport in 2003. During that time Manfred had the privilege of traveling the world and meeting and interviewing some of the best athletes in the world while he chased South Africa’s finest around the globe. Manfred resurrected Athletics Alive in 2011 on behalf of SABC and produced the show until 2016. He has covered three Olympic Games (2008/12/16 - was in London for 2012), the Commonwealth Games (2006/10/14/18) and was able to attend three World Championships. Manfred is now an accomplished Media Consultant with Athletics his biggest focus - and still his biggest passion.

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