The Elements of Style - Olympic Week


Brooks Johnson. Photo courtesy of Disney Sports Media.

To many, sports and the arts couldn’t be more opposite modes of expression. The arts are a free-for-all of creative ambitions and opinions whose values could never be adequately measured by numerals, try as some might with star-ratings and ten-point scales. On the other hand, the lure of athletics exudes from its assumed objectivity, and the closer a game’s scoring system can come to a true meritocracy of individual talents, the more it is usually beloved by its core audience.

However, this is not the view of Brooks Johnson, Olympic trainer since the 1960 Olympic Games, Track & Field Hall of Famer, and, according to his blog, an espoused lover of jazz. Johnson began his career in the sport as a high school track star, eventually earning a spot on the Division III team for Tufts University. At first content with pursuing an interest in politics after graduating, he took a stab at law and then business school at the University of Chicago before being drafted in the armed forces.

After a brief stint as a community organizer in the struggling neighborhoods of Washington D.C. in the late ’50s, he found himself working at the Government Affairs Institute under the State Department, coaching local track and field youth athletes as a passion. Eventually, a few of those young athletes found themselves Olympians, and brought Johnson along with them as a personal trainer in their pursuit of gold.

Ever since, Johnson has been attached at the hip of the American squad, leading the organization as USA Track & Field Chief of Sport for the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing. In this excerpt of his interview with BTR, Johnson not only talks shop on coaching America’s finest runners to compete in the summer games in London, but expounds heavily on the lacking differences he sees between both the sport and the art form he loves.

BreakThru Radio: You told the Tampa Bay Times before the Beijing Olympics that “If we don’t get the medals, we have one person to blame.” Is that person still you for these London Olympics?

Brooks Johnson: No, uh-uh. That person is Benita Fitzgerald Mosely, [USA Track & Field Chief of Sport].

BTR: Ah, so what’s your role this year?

BJ: Hopefully, I’ll help individual athletes make the team.

BTR: And who are those individual athletes?

BJ: One would be David Payne, who was second in the hurdles in ’08, David Oliver, who was third in the hurdles in ’08 and the American record holder, and Tiffany Ross Williams, who was a finalist in the 400 meter hurdles.

BTR: And given in that interview you said that you needed to get 26-27 medals to meet expectations for that year’s Olympics, you ended up walking away with 24 medals. Did you feel a great amount of disappointment? I mean, that is 24 medals, that is still a lot of athletic achievement.

BJ: Yeah well, we beat the Russians by about 10 medals so on one scale it was very successful on another scale it wasn’t. We should’ve gotten medals out of the shot-put, we had three people in the top four or five in the world and none of them came through. We dropped the baton in the relays, so that was three medals that were gone right there.

BTR: Did you feel any personal responsibility?

BJ: Yeah. If you have the title, you have to feel professionally and personally responsible.

BTR: But do you think it was at all the athletics that year, poor timing, even the day, or just that particular event?

BJ: Ah, you know, you’ve got human beings. Sometimes you’re on, sometimes you’re off. But at the end of the day, if you’ve got the title, as the sign says, “The buck stops here.”

BTR: Are you enjoying your role this year more than you have in years past?

BJ: Oh yeah, much more.

BTR: The pressure’s off, you can focus more on your relationship with the athletes?

BJ: It’s not that the pressure’s off, it’s that you have a lot more control.

BTR: Did they have personal trainers like you last year under your command?

BJ: Most definitely. They weren’t actually under my command but the point is that medal contenders basically have their personal coaches with them, so you have to walk a fine line between people being a part of the team and not taking them out of the regimen they would typically and normally pursue.

BTR: And in that way, what is your relationship to the athletes you’re training currently? Did you pick them, did they pick you…

BJ: No, pretty much they picked me because I don’t recruit athletes to come and train.

BTR: I noticed in a lot of their comments in those interviews and others that a lot of the athletes feel this close, personal, father-like connection to you. Do you feel that same connection with the athletes this year?

BJ: We have a good relationship but I don’t know if it’s father or not. The point is that I’m 78 and they’re in their middle twenties so if they need me as a friend or if I need them as a friend then both of us have some problems. I listen to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Muddy Waters. I can’t tell you the people they listened to.

BTR: On that subject, our mutual connection mentioned that you were a jazz aficionado and in reading your blog, which I found online in doing this research, you make a lot of allusions to jazz. Do you find any larger connection to music and coaching, music and athletics, that has helped you through your career?

BJ: Yes, of course. Athletics, art, [they] are all the same. They’re not basic values to a society, they’re what I call “super values,” whereas they’re the values that society supports that it really doesn’t need. So whether it’s art in the form of art, or theater, or music, or whatever, or athletics, it’s all the same. So what you find in those areas are the prevailing values, prejudices, values, whatever, of the society manifested themselves in the discretionary activities it supports. In other words, if you were painting in [Medieval] Rome, you pretty much had to paint what the Vatican would approve. So the prevailing values and super values of the Roman Catholic Church were what manifested in the arts. If you did something contrary to that, you got punished. The same thing happens nowadays. If you create art, no matter what it is, you’re expected to conform.

BTR: And jazz, of course, is such a free art form reflecting the freedom within our society in many ways. I’ve read in past interviews that your admiration for the sport, your love of the sport, comes from its ultimate objectivity; that it’s almost the ultimate sport — and almost those kind of seem contrary. So what values do you think are both in jazz and running that, even if they’re not the same, come from America?

BJ: The point is even in something like jazz or art that there are certain objective values. There are reds, and obviously, the most objective values in art are blacks and whites, because in varying degrees they’re either pure black or pure white. Between that, on a subjective and objective basis, there are other colors. I mean, if you see a Titian painting you know objectively and you know subjectively exactly who did that painting.

BTR: In that way do you think the way a runner’s style is presented in the way they run in the same way say to how a musician performs?

BJ: Of course, every great musician has a great foundation in the basics.

BTR: The scales.

BJ: How they apply the basics becomes their style. You have some musicians particularly in the jazz and the free form who just go out there and play a lot of notes and they don’t understand the basics, so they’re just blowing, just making sound and in some instances, they’re making noise. But the people we really appreciate are ones who have an understanding of the basics and they apply the basics in a form of self-expression, that’s Style [sic-ed.], with a capital-S. The other thing is a style, with a small s.

For more of our interview with Brooks Johnson, check out this week’s episode of Third Eye Weekly, BreakThru Radio’s brand new news and current events podcast, airing this Thursday.