In the Fast Lane

Michael Johnson is one of history’s most decorated athletes, with four Olympic and eight World Championship gold medals. He now runs Michael Johnson Performance (MJP), and has launched a new line of travel bags with luxury goods brand Dom Reilly.

I’m a big Formula One fan. The first race I attended was Spa in 1996, and I’ve been a fan ever since. I think the sport is starting to pick up in the United States. I’ve been to both races in Austin and they were huge successes, and there are a fair amount of Mexican and south American drivers in Formula One, which is reflected in the make-up of the United States population. But it’ll never be as big as it is in Europe.

Dom Reilly thought I’d be a good ambassador. We met in Qatar at a sports conference and we formed a partnership where MJP would provide training to the Williams pit crew.

I told Dom I’d quite like a bag. I’m often out all day: I’ll work out, I’ll need an extra pair of clothes, and I’ll be carrying my laptop. I’d normally have a briefcase bag with all my files in and then another bag with workout gear. I said it would be good to have everything in one bag and for it to look really nice.

I always knew I’d retire at a very early age. I studied business in college so throughout my 10 years as a professional athlete, I was always thinking about different business ideas.

I played a different sport every season as a kid. Most kids in America now play one sport, and start very early, which means they don’t develop fully athletically. That’s where MJP comes in, helping the athletic development of kids outside the skill of sport.

I love sport and I love the business of sport, but I’m not big on the political side

I’m not a coach, and I’ve never been a coach. As president and founder of MJP I spend most of my time managing staff, our relationship with partners – such as Nike and BP – and the direction of the company, specifically on the global business development side.

Our Nike partnership has been the highlight of my business career. Nike had a sports research lab, and now it has opened one at MJP headquarters. We provide a tremendous amount of product development and insight to Nike – so we’re able to contribute to its product development – but we’re also able to learn a lot about athletic movement, and that provides great value for our partners.

I’d never stand for position at a sports federation. I love sport and I love the business of sport, but I’m not big on the political side. I’ve always been intrigued with business, but federations like the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) or IOC (International Olympic Committee) don’t follow a traditional business model. You don’t get hired to those organisations, you have to go out there and canvas support to get voted in – I’m not very good at that.

We have to attract younger fans to athletics. There needs to be some hard choices made, and some traditionalists won’t like the changes, but it has to happen for the sport to survive. Athletics hasn’t acknowledged that there’s a lot more competition for young peoples’ time, and that you have to remain relevant to that generation to keep their attention. That’s the job of every sports administration – most do it, but athletics hasn’t at all.

Seb Coe could do a great job of turning the IAAF around. I know Seb, and I also competed at the same time as Sergey [Bubka]. Seb has the political experience from his time as a member of UK parliament and was very successful as chairman of the London 2012 Olympics local organising committee. He’s been involved in the sport for all of his life. I’ve read his manifesto and seen his vision for the sport.

Every time I see an athlete testing positive I think: ‘Good – we’ve caught another’. For all the things athletics has done wrong and to my great frustration, it has done a better job than any sport in having a zero-tolerance stance against doping. Some sports have decided that they don’t want to be in the media every day and so have taken a softer stance against doping, but athletics has taken a leap of faith from that standpoint.

I don’t understand Boston as the United States’ bid city choice for 2024. Boston’s a great city, but in terms of cities in the United States that people around the world say ‘I’ve always wanted to visit there’, there are better options. There are also better options when you consider how the IOC goes about voting for host cities – Boston will be a real uphill battle in terms of building facilities and logistics. I also know there’s a real fear in the IOC with cities that have opposition – and there’s a lot of opposition in Boston.

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