Cleveland, OH Sports Articles, Analysis & CommentaryBILL LIVINGSTON
December 05, 2009, 5:10AM
When people remember the Atlanta Olympics, they recall organizational snarls and great performances in spite of everything that got in the athletes’ way.
One of the best was the victory in the 100 meters by Canadian Donovan Bailey, who had four years of his life staked on what happened roughly 10 seconds after the starter’s pistol fired. Bailey came through under pressure the way only the great ones do.
In the pre-dawn hours before the men’s 100 final on July 27, 1996, a bomb exploded in Centennial Park, killing one bystander, inducing a fatal heart attack in a Turkish cameraman, and wounding others.
In the race itself, Great Britain’s Linford Christie, the defending champion, refused to leave the track after he was disqualified for his second false start, arguing at length with officials.
When the sprinters finally charged out of the starting blocks on their fourth try at a legal start, Bailey was in last place. Trinidad’s Ato Boldon and Namibia’s Frank Fredericks, who had the year’s fastest times, were among the leaders. Only in the second half of the race did Bailey pass them, reaching the incredible speed of 27 mph on his way to a world record 9.84-second clocking.
AP PhotoDonovan Bailey of Canada celebrates after crossing the finish line to win gold in the men’s 100 meters in a time of 9.84 at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Bailey believes that Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt can take track and field to higher levels of popularity. Bailey was a rangy sprinter at 6 feet, cut from the mold of Carl Lewis and Christie, rather than a squatty, thickly muscled man like Maurice Greene or the disgraced Ben Johnson. A native of Jamaica who immigrated to Canada, like Ben Johnson, Bailey used the same come-from-behind strategy as Carl Lewis. It seemed sure to fail, this crazy strategy of spotting the fastest men on the planet the lead in a race that was over in a few eyeblinks.
Bailey had the tunnel vision of a champion. He chased them down like LeBron James closing on a breakaway layup. “Focus is a part of training. A lot of things were going on that day, but you had to remember what was at stake,” said Bailey with a Jamaican lilt in his voice.
His victory redeemed the reputation of the Canadian Olympic Committee after the disqualification of steroid abuser Ben Johnson in 1988. It also was proof that speed can, to some extent, be learned.
“You have to be blessed with good genes, but you can improve 0.4 of a second with technique, weight training, therapy and nutrition. Of course, it goes down as you get faster,” said Bailey.
The former gold medalist will deliver the keynote address today at the “World’s Greatest Speed Clinic” at Premier Sport Conditioning in Twinsburg. Bailey had been away from competitive sprinting for six years while he began a business career, then returned to the track in 1991. His best 100 time then was 10.36 seconds. Then he began to shave the tenths of a second off.
Bailey thinks the exuberant, record-smashing Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt can take track and field to greater levels of popularity than it has enjoyed since before the scandal in Seoul. Bailey notes that American women’s sprinter Allyson Felix has the portfolio (two Olympic 200-meter silver medals and a 4x400 relay gold) and photogenic qualities to give the sport a boost, too.
Of Bolt, Bailey said discounting the doping suspicions endemic to track: “I know what he was doing when he was 14, 15, 16 years old. He always had great potential.”
Bolt clocked times in the 200 at age 16 that Michael Johnson – the 200 and 400 gold medalist at Atlanta, as well as Bailey’s rival in a famous match race – did not reach until age 20. “Bolt’s start is not very good, but he stands 6-5,” said Bailey. “He extends [his stride] while the shorter sprinters are still hunched over. Stride length matters. If he is in striking distance at 40 meters, the race is his.”
Despite a 100 World Championship in 1995 and a gold medal in the 4x100 relay in Atlanta, Bailey is known to non-track fans mostly for the “world’s fastest human” race in 1998 in Toronto’s Skydome against Michael Johnson at the bastardized distance of 150 meters.
Interest in such a race arose from casual fans’ misunderstanding of the physics of track. When Michael Johnson was timed in 9.2 seconds for his second 100 in setting a world record of 19.32 (since broken by Bolt) in the 200 in Atlanta, he did not begin at a standstill, as did Bailey when he ran 9.84 in the 100. A runner starting from blocks must overcome inertia to begin accelerating. A runner in the 200 meters begins the second 100 in motion. He has already overcome the inertia.
Said Bailey: “My best time in the 100 was in the 9.8’s. He could do 10.2 on his best day. There was no doubt I would win. I had that race won in the first 10 meters.”
Michael Johnson pulled up after 110 meters, clutching a supposedly pulled quadriceps muscle.
“Was he really hurt? Or were his feelings just hurt because he got dusted?” I asked.
“I can’t say that. You would have to write it,” Bailey replied, laughing. “But at the next meet in Paris the next weekend, we both competed.”
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