Donovan Bailey is poised to star in the Games’ main event
The Power and the Glory
Donovan Bailey is poised to star in the Games’ main event
At a post-race press conference in the cafeteria at Montreal’s Claude Robillard Stadium, the fastest men in Canada collapsed into chairs, finally able to relax after a tense week. Donovan Bailey, Bruny Surin and Glenroy Gilbert had just finished one-twothree, respectively, in the 100-m final at the Canadian track-and-field championships last month, which meant they qualified to run the 100-m for Canada’s Olympic sprint team in Atlanta. And the relief— that they didn’t fall, get hurt or miss the team—was palpable. But whatever fun they were having afterward was fleeting this time of year.
The Olympic 100-m is the glamor event at the world’s biggest sporting spectacle, and the gamesmanship began long beforehand. When American sprinter Jon Drummond told reporters at the U.S. trials that he was going to “kick some Canadian butt” in Atlanta, the butt in question just shrugged it off. “All the talk—none of it means a thing,” says Bailey, the defending world champion. “People are trying to get an edge, but it comes down to the race. That’s all.”
The men’s 100-m sprint is the most exciting 10 seconds in sport.
The winner inherits the mantle of “the fastest man in the world”—and sometimes much more. American Jesse Owens became a political hero when his 100-m victory at the 1936 Games in Berlin made hollow the “master race” boasts of Adolf Hitler.
Conversely, Canadian Ben Johnson became a goat in 1988 when he tested positive for anabolic steroids, forfeiting his gold medal and world record. Regardless of the subplots, the 100-m Olympic title is worth millions of dollars in endorsements and appearance fees. The athletes who qualify will gather for the final at 10:18 p.m. on July 27. They will coil themselves into their starting blocks and, for a moment, it will seem as if the air has been taken out of Olympic Stadium. Then, at the crack of the starter’s pistol, they will explode. “Once you’re there,” Surin says, “anything can happen.” For the Canadians, Atlanta offers another reward: victory there might finally blot out the stain of Johnson’s disgrace. In the post-Ben era, Canadian fans have tuned out. Surin, now 28, finished fourth at the 1992 Games, yet he had almost no pro-
file at home. “I don’t know that I would have survived the years that Bruny had to go through,” says Bailey, “with people not knowing or caring about the fact that he was at the top of his sport.” Bailey, too, struggled for recognition at home even after winning the world championship. Last December on a flight between Montreal and Toronto, after an on-board interview with Bailey, a Maclean’s writer was approached by a flight attendant who asked, “Should I know that guy?” The Canadians did get the attention of the track world—the Americans in particular—with their onetwo finish last August at the worlds in Göteborg, Sweden. With Ato Boldon of Trinidad taking bronze, the Americans were shut out of an event they used to dominate. Bailey, Surin, Gilbert of Ottawa and Robert Esmie of Sudbury, Ont., further wounded U.S. pride when they won the 4 x 100-m relay in Göteborg. To the dismay of the home-town fans, the same 100-m fate may await in Atlanta. The pace has been set by Frankie Fredericks of Namibia, who has the season’s two fastest times (9.86 and 9.87 at spring meets in Europe) and Boldon (9.92 in Eugene, Ore., in June). While American Dennis Mitchell also ran 9.92 at the U.S. trials and promptly boasted that he would be the favorite in Atlanta, he was unimpressive at top meets in Europe.
Among the Canadians, Bailey appears best placed to tackle the world’s elite. Surin has been competitive despite a lingering groin injury, and he won a June meet in Paris. Bailey, meanwhile, set the world 50-m record during the indoor season, and in Montreal he defended his national 100-m title with a smooth 9.98 to Surin’s 10.04 and Gilbert’s 10.18. Bailey’s best perfor-
mance this spring came in Lausanne, Switzerland, in June, when he ran 9.93—two one-hundredths off his personal best— yet finished second to Fredericks’s blistering 9.86. At each meet, Bailey appeared more intent on refining his technique— his starts, his acceleration and his relaxation—than on winning. He is also trying to minimize the pressure of the Olympic final. “Atlanta—it’s coming,” he says. “If I’m healthy, I’ll run well.” Now 28, Bailey came late to track. He lived with his mother in Jamaica until he was 12, then moved to Oakville, Ont.,
where his father settled after a divorce. Although he ran track in high school, his passion was basketball, which he also played while attending Sheridan College. “I was a power forward locked in a guard’s body,” he says, laughing. So when he graduated with a diploma in business, he established a small telemarketing firm in Oakville and went to work.
In 1991, he and some friends attended the national track championships in Montreal. “It sounds crazy,” he says, “but I was watching those guys and thought, ‘I can run faster than that.’ ” He decided to try, first with coach Erwin Turney in Mississauga, Ont. He was soon challenging Surin for national honors, but he
was not setting the international scene afire. By 1994, he felt he needed a change, so he signed on with Dan Pfaff, a sprint specialist who coaches at the University of Texas in Austin. Pfaff regarded his new pupil as a world record waiting to happen— Bailey is all legs and shoulders, joined by an absurdly narrow 28-inch waist. He is not intimidated by the sport’s posers and trash-talkers. Bailey, too, has the gift of the gab and, as Pfaff notes, gives as good as he gets.
Under Pfaff, Bailey has overhauled his technique, improving his starts and his ability to sustain speed through the race, and his new consistency will help him perform in the withering pressure of the Games. But he admits that public expectations will be no greater than his own. “I see myself winning everything that I get into,” he says. “I know that people now expect me to be No. 1, but I always expected that.” Bailey is not naïve about the use of drugs. “I know it happens,” he says, “but I can’t worry about that because I can’t do anything about that.”
Bailey is propelled by the hard lessons of his father. Before he retired, George Bailey was a chemical worker at an Oakville plant that designed and manufactured wallpaper. “My father was never satisfied with any job that I ever did,” Bailey says. “I was taught to always push for something better. If I ever got 99 per cent in a test, there was still one more per cent I could get.” The elder Bailey did not immediately support his son’s choice—he did not want him to be seen as a dumb jock. “He wasn’t too happy that I gave up my business,” Bailey says. “He didn’t see track as a career. But now he realizes that I have a God-given talent that I won’t have forever, and that I am doing a good job.”
So good that corporate sponsors have signed him up—Bailey has endorsement deals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from Adidas, Coca-Cola, Air Canada, Kellogg’s and Helene Curtis. And one of his TV commercials, which pays tribute to Jesse Owens, reflects his interest in track’s history; Bailey is dismayed by his fellow competitors’ lack of respect for the people who built the sport. “Most of these guys don’t connect with their heritage in track, or even their teams,” he says. “They see themselves only as themselves, not as part of a line that starts back with great athletes in the past. We don’t have a hall of fame to remind us. In hockey and baseball, the old guys come back and contribute, and as a result the sport is richer. Track and field? It’s just dead.”
Although he is serious-minded—at times, he looks like a storm cloud—Bailey’s face softens into a broad, sunny-day smile when the subject turns to his family. He has a two-year-old daughter, Adriana, with his girlfriend, Michelle, in Oakville, and he regrets that his change of coaches forces him to be away for long stretches. “The strain of being a track athlete is mainly in the fact that we are always on the road,” he says. “I miss seeing my daughter.” But considering he was a spectator only five years ago, Bailey has done well, and he hopes that, someday, his daughter will understand why Daddy had to be away so much. “When I’m done with track, I want to go home and play with Adriana, be there to watch her play soccer or go to parent-teacher meetings,” he says. “I know that I have sacrificed a lot, but I believe that what I am doing now will ultimately benefit her.” It may benefit Canada, too. □
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