Sports

At last, the Main Event

JAMES DEACON June 2 1997
Sports

At last, the Main Event

JAMES DEACON June 2 1997

At last, the Main Event

Sports

The Sunday afternoon flight from Toronto to Houston is just about to pull away from the gate when Donovan Bailey hurries aboard. He avoids eye contact with other passengers and keeps his sunglasses on until he slips into a seat in Row A. It is a typical celebrity ploy— by sitting up front and arriving after everyone else is seated, Bailey hopes to prevent the flight from turning into a threehour autograph session. But it’s a thin ruse: the country holds few hiding places for the Oakville, Ont., sprinter whose dramatic victory in the 100-m final at the 1996 Summer Olympics was watched by millions at home and billions worldwide. A few passengers approach with outstretched pens and magazines to sign (not recognizing that the man sitting one row back is Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Roger Clemens). After that, Bailey—stylishly turned out in a sky-blue four-button sports jacket over a white shirt and jeans—is left alone to indulge a habit he cannot manage at his training home in Austin, Tex.— perusing Toronto newspapers. It is early May and this is the first he has read about the Manitoba flood and the federal election. “You never hear much about Canada down there,” he says, “except maybe bad weather.”

Actually, Bailey is not alone for long. And when a Maclean’s reporter raises that grating Americans-ignoring-Canada subject, the runner’s expression hardens even as he relaxes in the leather comfort of first class, a glass of white wine in hand. It is the subject that got him so steamed at the Atlanta Games, where the big U.S. media outlets ignored the Canadian 4 x 100 relay team prior to the final race. Never mind that the Canucks were ranked No. 1 in the world—the host broadcaster, NBC, quoted an American sprint coach who guaranteed a U.S. victory just before the Canadians ran to gold. The more obvious dent in Canadian pride, however, came after Bailey won the 100 m. The same U.S. media then touted American goldmedallist Michael Johnson as the World’s Fastest Man—a title that traditionally goes to thelOOm record holder—arguing that Johnson’s 200-m time (19.32 seconds), divided into two 100s, beat Bailey’s just-minted 100-m mark of 9.84.

Bailey does not dismiss Johnson’s accomplishments, but he isn’t about to hand over his World’s Fastest Man crown either. “I’d be a fool to say Michael Johnson is a nobody,” Bailey says over dinner on the plane. “That would be stupid. He’s a very aggressive competitor, as I am, and he has done a lot. He’s a big star. But I’m not one of those guys who needs all the hoopla. I don’t need to walk around with bodyguards.”

No, Donovan Bailey does not travel with a Johnson-style entourage. But he is a big star nonetheless—and plainly half of a promoter’s dream. What if... and so was born the One-to-

One Challenge of Champions, which will be staged at Toronto’s SkyDome on June 1. The event features a series of head-to-head competitions between world and Olympic champions: hurdlers Gail Devers and Ludmila Engquist, pole-vaulters Okkert Brits and Sergei Bubka, long jumpers Heike Drechsler and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, high jumpers Charles Austin and Javier Sotomayor and paralympians Tony Volpentest and Neil Fuller. But the headline act is Johnson versus Bailey in a 150-m match race that splits the difference between their specialties but will not—at least in Bailey’s eyes—determine the World’s Fastest Man. “If running the 150 was to prove who was the fastest man,” he says bluntly. “I wouldn’t do it.”

So why is Bailey doing it? Both runners have said they hope their showdown will help raise track-and-field’s sagging profile in North America. And both have acknowledged the mercenary side: they will each collect $700,000 just for showing up, while the winner will take home another $1.4 million. And both want the bragging rights, which are not just personal but national—there is no denying that theirs has somehow become a Canada-U.S. rivalry, as well. And it will all be settled in a hybrid race that involves hurtling around a 75-m curve and accelerating down a straightaway to the finish line in less than 15 seconds—the winner very much in doubt. “It’s going to be a good race,” says Bailey’s agent, Ray Flynn. “I don’t see a blowout by either one.”

After the Atlanta Games, at least a dozen promoters tried to put the Bailey-Johnson deal together. Quickest off the mark was Magellan Entertainment Group, run by aggressive up-

start Giselle Briden (page 71). Since the Ottawa-based firm won the prize, however, it has not only moved its main offices to Toronto but betrayed its inexperience in sports by issuing ill-prepared news releases and holding poorly co-ordinated media days with the sprinters. Sports purists have also criticized Magellan for turning Johnson and Bailey into Barnum & Bailey. But in fact, Magellan’s style borrows most from boxing promoters like Don King. At the first news conference last November, Briden had the runners pose for a face-to-face stare-down, and company news releases refer to the other competitions as the Undercard. “Maybe we ought to have a weigh-in—get on the scales and flex a few times,” Bailey laughs.

Joking aside, there is a sense that the two sprinters are not merely striking feigned pre-race poses. There is a sense that Bailey and Johnson—the Canadian and the American, an unmatched pair of 29year-olds at the peak of their running and earning powers—really don’t like each other.

In the Maple Leaf corner, wearing the blue warm-up suit and the Day-Glo sneakers, Bailey is beginning his morning workout with coach Dan Pfaff. Memorial Stadium in Austin is the austere home of the University of Texas Longhorns football team, the place where longtime coach Darryl Royal remains a legend and running back Earl Campbell was once a one-man herd. Unlike football, track-andfield is not a recognized religion in Texas. “I don’t think people even know Donovan’s here,” says Pfaff. “We trained here for two weeks prior to the Olympics, and not one single person ever came by.” Bailey insists he is not troubled that he is better known in Japan

Bailey and Johnson go headto-head in a dash for cash

and Europe than he is in Austin. Professionally, he fights for recognition for his Canadian teammates and himself, but personally he revels in hanging out with friends at clubs and zipping around town unnoticed in his Porsche. After practices, he retreats to the house he owns in the hills west of downtown—most months, it is warm enough to sit out on the terrace, listening to music and admiring the view. “Austin,” he says, “would be perfect if it were in Canada.” Both runner and coach say training has gone well, although Bailey was slowed this spring by a strained Achilles tendon. Pfaff says the longer distance and the unaccustomed curve will not be great handicaps. “Donovan runs 150s as part of training for the 100, so he knows how to run the curve,” the coach says. Bailey has taken every fourth week off to visit his girlfriend, Michelle Mullin, and daughter, three-year-old Adriana, in Oakville, or to honor sponsor commitments and commercial shoots—he has deals with Adidas, Coca-Cola and Air Canada, among others. He has two main goals for the rest of 1997. He wants to beat Johnson, and he wants to anchor the Canadian 4 x 100-m relay team to a world-record triumph at the world track and field championships in Athens in August. The current 4 x 100 record is 37.4 seconds but, he says, “I think we are capable of running 37-flat.”

Bailey also hopes the Toronto event will boost a sport that has virtually disappeared from the North American sports landscape in all but Olympic years. “If track is going to compete with all the other entertainment options out there,” he says, “this is something we are going to have to do.” He admits, however, that he had initial reservations about the prize-fight packaging. “I am definitely not a rahrah kind of guy. I don’t like to get in someone’s face and trash-talk.”

Maybe not, but he is not above a bit of needling. When a reporter asked if a match race was a “head game,” Bailey replied: “If Michael and I are going to get into a battle of wits, I think I have already won.”

In the Stars and Stripes corner, running drills at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Johnson is wearing black Lycra running shorts, white training shoes and a sheen of glistening sweat. He is, in the vernacular, cut, his rippling muscles pronounced even from a distance. Johnson keeps that distance throughout the workout, staying clear of the knot of reporters who have gathered at trackside. He does the same when the group reconvenes for a post-workout scrum. He refuses to enter the press room until a TV camera and all the reporters’ chairs are moved well back of his own seat. “This would be a good time to have a sense of humor,” Briden says.

Johnson achieved international recognition running for Baylor University in Waco, Tex. But his golden moment came on the muggy Atlanta night of Aug. 1,1996, when, in the 200-m Olympic final, he accelerated off the turn and left Namibia’s Frankie Fredericks well behind—setting a new world record of 19.32 seconds. That added lustre to the gold medal he had already won in the 400 m. So when the U.S. media handed him the fastest-man title, he said thanks very much. “I didn’t ask for it,” he says, “but since they gave it to me, I’m not about to give it up without a fight.” Johnson is quick to add, however, that neither he nor Bailey will be running their usual races and, “regardless of the outcome, you’ll still have someone out there who’s going to say some

other guy is the fastest man in the world.” Johnson will step into the blocks against Bailey as a slight favorite because of the curve in the track and the fact that the distance is shorter than his specialty. In the 200, Johnson usually reaches his maximum speed as he rounds the curve at around 100 m; Bailey, in his 100-m sprints, normally tops out at about 60 m and then tries to maintain the pace through the final 40— raising questions as to whether he can keep it up for 50 more in the new event. But Johnson’s coach, Clyde Hart, says his pupil’s greatest asset is his mental toughness. “He is very focused, very professional,” Hart observed while Johnson ran through his drills at SMU. “As long as I get him ready physically, he’ll be fine.”

On the track and in front of the camera, Johnson rarely cracks a smile. Asked if he ever expected to make so much money from racing—his annual income from appearance fees and endorsements is $7 million—he said matter-of-factly: “I thought I’d make this much money doing something, running or otherwise, because that was my goal.” He insists the race against Bailey is strictly business, but there is an edge to his voice as he describes his opponent. He did not, for instance, like Bailey’s comment that Americans were “ignorant” of the non-U.S. athletes in Atlanta. “Prior to the Olympics, I had a lot of respect for Donovan as a person and as an athlete,” he says pointedly. “Now, I still have respect for him as an athlete.”

Donovan Bailey seems ready. In his final tuneup for Toronto, he sprinted to a 100-m victory in 9.99 seconds at the Harry Jerome Track Classic in Burnaby, B.C. The win was so impressive that even his nearest competitor, American Leroy Burrell, called Bailey the World’s Fastest Man and added that he hopes Bailey beats Johnson for the greater glory of all 100-m runners—a case of sports specialty taking precedence over nationality.

When the big day finally comes, the Toronto race—based on the promoters’ style so far—may well begin when a man in a tuxedo grabs a microphone and bellows: “Let’s get ready to RUM-BLET Not that Bailey would notice anyway. Like Johnson, he has a knack for blocking out distractions— as he did in Atlanta, where the 100-m final was disrupted by three false starts. He will need that focus again in Toronto to tune out the home-town fans. “If I ever get into the blocks thinking that all of Canada is watching me and they really, really want me to win, then I am going to forget all the little things I need to do in the race to succeed,” he says. Instead, he intends to turn that burden around. “I think it will be a little scary for Michael,” Bailey says slyly, “to walk in and realize he’s in my backyard.”

JAMES DEACON