Sunday, July 28, 1996
Bailey proved to be the calm in the eye of the storm
By JIM O'LEARY --
Executive Producer SLAM! Sports
ATLANTA -- Donovan Bailey concluded his pre-Olympic preparation by phoning Ben Johnson for advice. Then he went out last night and ran the most electrifying 100 metres since Ben's 9.79 eight years ago in Seoul.
A short time later he was in the interview room and facing a questioner who wondered if winning Olympic gold and setting the recognized world record of 9.84 seconds means he might not have to run in a shadow any more.
It seemed an odd way to begin proceedings. A few minutes around Bailey is all it takes to realize he is his own man. To see him perform so splendidly in the biggest race of his life was proof enough of that. This guy casts shadows; he doesn't lurk among them.
"I'm not trying to do what Ben did or undo what Ben did in Seoul,'' Bailey responded patiently. "My name is Donovan Bailey.
"But no matter what happens, because it was such a huge story it'll always come up because I'm Canadian and Jamaican born.''
One thing Bailey does share with Johnson, besides cheetah-like speed, is steely nerves. There was considerable talk in the days leading up to the race about whether Bailey could withstand the pressure of his first Olympics. This morning he will be recognized as not only the fastest, but the mentally toughest of all the world's sprinters.
"The whole idea of this race was for me to relax,'' Bailey said. "I wasn't thinking world record. Any time I go into a race thinking about my times I screw up.''
The Olympic final can weigh like an anvil on a guy's psyche at the best of times. Years of training, thousands of hours in the gym and on the track, are crunched down into one 10-second sprint in which a single mistake can spell disaster. And that anvil never feels more heavy than when a sprinter is scrunched into the starting block, his body wound tighter than the inside of a golf ball, waiting for the crack of the gun.
Ask a field to assume the position four times in a five-minute span and something is bound to give. And last night it did.
The race itself was record fast, but the event had to rank among the most drawn-out 100 metres ever contested. Four times the racers were called to the blocks. The first three times brought false starts and saw the defending Olympic champion, Linford Christie, disqualified for committing two of them.
He objected to the starter's decision and refused initially to leave the track. As he sat stubbornly on his lane marker, the other sprinters paced back and forth like caged tigers waiting for the zoo keeper to unbolt the door. Finally, an official asked Christie to leave the field.
Christie got half way down the tunnel before he realized only a fool would leave now. All week, racers and coaches had been forecasting that last night's race would be the fastest the world had ever seen. Christie wasn't about to leave until it was over, so he returned and took up a spot well back from the starting line just before the gun sounded.
Meantime, the tension was building. The Olympic 100 metre is the most dramatic event of the Games under normal circumstances. But last night's protracted start felt as if someone had taken hold of the control and cranked up the pressure.
Christie crumbled.Trinidad's Ato Boldon, who had the fastest time in the semi finals, 9.93, admitted that all the waiting around got to him. He finished third. Frankie Fredericks, the world's fastest man of '96 heading into last night, ran a solid 9.89, but that was about half a second slower than many projected for him.
The one guy who never waivered was Bailey.
Throughout the delay he looked nothing but calm. He strolled up and down his lane for a minute, that retreated to his lane marker and took a seat.
"It think the delay might have helped me,'' he said. "I used the time to relax and get refocussed.''
In the split second between the starter's call of "Get Set'' and the sounding of the gun, Bailey seemed to rock in his blocks as if he was about to false start. Instead he hit the gun almost perfectly and got what was, for him, a decent start. When he got his long legs going full speed, he accelerated by the field almost effortlessly and, from the 70-metre mark, his stride had the bearing of a champion.
The Olympics hadn't seen a perfomance like it since, well....you know.