x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Canada had pride restored by Bailey

On this day in 1996, Donovan Bailey took 9.84seconds to end the national sense of shame that had festered in every Canadian for eight years earning him Olympic gold and erased the bitter memory of the Ben Johnson scandal.

Donovan Bailey took 9.84seconds to end the national sense of shame that had festered in every Canadian for eight years; his world record run in the 100m at the Atlanta Olympics on this day in 1996 not only earned him the gold medal but also served to erase the bitter memory of the Ben Johnson scandal. Like Bailey, Johnson had been born in Jamaica, unlike the new Olympic champion his "triumph" at the Seoul Games of 1988 had been fuelled by steroids and his subsequent disqualification brought disgrace to his adopted country. The Maple Leaf could fly proudly once more.

Not that Bailey's victory was achieved without its dramas and controversies. The world champion had been overshadowed by Namibia's Frankie Fredericks and Ato Boldon of Trinidad & Tobago in the heats and semi-finals, to such an extent that in a poll of 100 journalists and commentators, 98 predicted a bronze medal for the Canadian. The final was to prove an extended affair after being disrupted by three false starts, two by defending Olympic champion Linford Christie which led to suggestions that he had deliberately beaten the gun in order to secure disqualification in preference to finishing out of the medals as he was almost certain to do.

Understandable, therefore, the seven finalists went into the blocks for the fourth time in an air of trepidation and Bailey recorded the slowest reaction time as Boldon and Fredericks sped to the front. Forty metres from the finishing line, however, Bailey reined in his rivals and, despite his sluggish start, overhauled them both to shave 0.01sec off the world record set by American Leroy Burrell in Lausanne two years earlier. To add to Canada's sense of pride, Bailey teamed up with Robert Esmie, Glenroy Gilbert and Bruny Surin to strike gold in the 4x100m relay.

As 100m record holder, Bailey assumed the mantle of "the world's fastest man" - a label Michael Johnson, winner of the 200 and 400m in Atlanta, unashamedly hijacked in a series of advertisements. As track promoters engaged in a bidding war to stage "the showdown of showdowns", a somewhat reluctant Bailey - "The identity of the world's fastest man was decided in Atlanta" - was eventually persuaded to meet Johnson in a made-for-TV 150m dash for a winner-take-all prize of US$1.5 million (Dh5.5m).

Raced on a specially constructed track comprising a 75m bend and 75m straight in Toronto's SkyDome, the gunfight was something of a disappointment. Johnson exploded from the blocks but had been overtaken and left well behind when he pulled up after 110m claiming an injury to his quadriceps muscle. Bailey, who clearly gestured Come on! to Johnson as he approached the line, made no effort to hide his disappointment that his victory had been tarnished by his opponent's decision to quit. As a successful stockbroker before taking to the track, the pay cheque was scant reward. "He didn't pull up, he's just a chicken. I think we should run this race again so I could whip his a** one more time."

Alas, Bailey's reign as the sprint king was to prove as brief as it had been spectacular; after winning a third world title in Athens in 1997 when he spearheaded the Canadian relay team to yet another flying victory over the Americans, he suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in pre-season training. Although it was effectively a career ending injury, Bailey refused to bow to the inevitable, qualifying for the 2000 Sydney Games. Later diagnosed with pneumonia, Bailey finished last in his second-round heat.

But his place in Canadian sporting legend, had long since been secured. rphilip@thenational.ae