Mon, September 23, 2013

Bailey longed for home turf

By Robert Tychkowski, QMI Agency


Former Canadian track star Donovan Bailey. (CODY McLACHLAN/QMI Agency file photo)

EDMONTON - If there is one regret in Donovan Bailey's illustrious career, it's that he never got to run in a Donovan Bailey Invitational.

Winning Olympic gold medals is awesome, and being a global rock star is pretty cool, too, but competing in a major annual track and field competition in his home country?

For all he's done, he's never done that.

"That's the one thing (missing), when I look back in reflection," he said on the eve of a momentum-gaining event that bears his name. "Oh, man, if this was here when I was competing, this would be a standard for me every year. Every year!"

Aside from rare one-off exceptions like the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, Canadian track and field athletes spend their entire careers watching everyone else soak up and feed off home fans.

The Italians get it in Rome. The Americans get it in New York and Eugene. The Swedes get it on Stockholm.

ROAD WARRIORS

Canadians, playing nothing but road game after road game, got it nowhere.

Till now, anyway. The upstart DBI at Foote Field is heading in that direction, toward providing Canadians with the kind of fan support that had always been reserved for somebody else.

"This should be something the current athletes can look at and say ÔI can actually be in a Diamond League-type situation,' " said Bailey. "And everybody in the stands is cheering ME on."

They are looking at it that way. And they say it's about time.

"To have a meet here, on Canadian soil, home grounds, to have the atmosphere and have people come out and cheer and get us excited to compete is definitely a turning point for athletes," said Whitby's Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist and 2009 World Championship silver medalist in the 100-metre hurdles.

"We can go out to a meet and there won't be anybody in the stands. But to go somewhere where there's screaming and yelling, and they're trying to get us pumped up, is a whole different atmosphere. To have that (at home) definitely brings the best out in all the athletes. That's what I'm looking forward to on Saturday."

The third annual DBI is still in its infancy, but it has made strides enough that the likes of Lopes-Schliep, Perdita Felicien, and World Championship silver medalist shot-putter Dylan Armstrong already consider it the highlight of the season. World 100 metres champion Yohan Blake is also giving it a whirl.

The key now is getting more athletes from the rest of the world on board and posting the kind of results that get noticed.

"Ninety-eight per cent of the onus (for making this event a major league stop) is on the athletes," said Bailey. "You have to have some good performances."

BUILDING A REP

But he cautions that the other 2%, in the early years, is crucial. The DBI is still forging its reputation, good or bad, so they need to make sure that when the athletes leave Edmonton they can tell their colleagues it's worth the trip.

"We need to put on something incredible," said Bailey. "We need to have something that is pristinely run. Races on time, no mistakes. It's very tedious, but (meet director) Peter (Ogilvie) and his team have to organize everyone to make sure we have a flawless competition. That will allow the athletes to come in, compete, and be our ambassadors for next year.

"We want the Canadians to have the exact same feeling as a Diamond League event in Europe, but, most importantly, we want all of the Olympic champions and World Champions from around the world to feel like THEY'RE at home.

"They are our best ambassadors; they will go back to wherever they are from and say ÔWe had an incredible time, you should come next year.'"

Basically, organizers need to run this meet like Bailey ran his races.

"I always came ready to deliver and our meet has to have the same attitude," he said. "We have to deliver and the athletes will come, that's how it is."

robert.tychkowski@sunmedia.ca

@SUN_TYCHKOWSKI