She had been staring at him for most of the flight, studying
this vaguely familiar face to which she could attach no name.
There are thousands of flights carrying hundreds of thousands of
briefcases every day between Toronto and Montreal, planes full
of men who look as if they are going to show samples or take
depositions, but this man wasn't one of them. He was chatting
into someone's tape recorder, answering questions in engaging
bursts. He was special. Important. Anyone could see that.
"Excuse me," the woman whispered as the passengers filed off the
plane. "Am I supposed to know him?"
The greatest titles in the universe are heavyweight champion and
world's fastest man. They represent the pinnacles of two simple,
primordial pastimes, fighting and sprinting. No moment in sports
is as delicious with anticipation as when the champion threads
his way to the ring--unless it's a stadium going library-silent
waiting for the gun of an Olympic 100-meter final.
Mike Tyson is the heavyweight champion, and he can start a
parade anywhere in the world by walking around the block.
Donovan Bailey, the special passenger on that flight to Toronto,
is the world's fastest man, the 100-meter world champion. He
starts no parades. He leaves a shallow footprint.
Aren't we supposed to know him?
"If I lived in Europe," Bailey says, "I'd be sick of seeing my
own face on TV, and I'd be worth millions."
But Bailey lives in Oakville, a bedroom community in suburban
Toronto. His country is now the fastest nation on earth.
Strange. Canada used to fancy itself the Great Slow North, an
earnest but lumbering Dudley Do-Right sort of land. These days
it is the home of Bailey, world 100-meter silver medalist Bruny
Surin and the world champion 4x100-meter relay team. Keeping
such fast company has its perils, of course. Canada once fell in
love with a 100-meter hero, a muscular, monosyllabic champion
named Ben Johnson, who broke the heart of the nation when the
gold medal he won and world-record time he ran were taken away
after he tested positive for steroids at the 1988 Olympics.
Maybe Canada isn't ready to love again. Bailey and Surin raced
at indoor meets in three cities across Canada last January.
There was only one full house in the series (in Saskatoon), even
though the second race was in Hamilton, 20 minutes door-to-door
from Bailey's condo if he is driving his Mazda RX7. The gold and
silver medalists from last summer's world championships were
running at home in an Olympic year, and 6,000 fans showed up in
an arena that holds three times as many. It was as if the
world's fastest man were running next door and his neighbors
drew the drapes.
If life were fair, the Donovan Bailey story would start with how
he was born in 1967 in Manchester, Jamaica, or how he came to
Canada in 1981 or how he ran track to meet girls ("Never a fat
girl on the track, except maybe the shot put") or how his
yearbook said he would be either a 1992 Olympian or manager of a
Club Med, or with some other silly biographical signpost along
the road to the summit of the sprint world.
Life isn't fair, so the story starts in an Oakville bar where
Bailey was waiting for the Olympic 100-meter final on a
September night in 1988. This race wasn't simply a living-room
event in Canada. This was 10 seconds' worth of national glue,
something people felt they needed to share. This was the
heavyweight championship: Ben Johnson vs. Carl Lewis. The bar
"I was shaking, sweating, my teeth were clattering," says
Bailey. "A lot of people felt that way. When Ben won, the whole
The whole country exploded. Three days later, with the news of
Johnson's positive steroid test, a nation imploded. The most
identifiable Canadian in history was not a politician or
musician or hockey player. He was a cheat. There was a
disqualification at Seoul, a qualification at home. Johnson was
now a "Jamaican-Canadian." In losing the gold, he had gained a
hyphen, and a silent legacy was established.
"I was home watching tapes of all the Olympic 100s since 1984,
and I was thinking that afterwards all the stories referred to a
'Jamaican-born sprinter,'" says Surin, 28, who moved to Montreal
from Haiti when he was seven. "What the hell was that? It makes
you wonder if it could ever happen to us if anything bad
happened. Not drugs, but anything. The radio, the TV, all you
were hearing was jokes about Ben Johnson. Proud Canadian one
day. Jokes the next."
Both Bailey and Surin suggest this reaction wasn't entirely
because of the Stanozolol in Johnson's system. They suggest it
also was because of something deep within many Canadians.
"Canada is as blatantly racist as the United States," Bailey
says offhandedly as he sits in a restaurant in Austin, where he
now trains. "We know it exists. People who don't appear to be
Canadian"--people of color--"don't get the same treatment. They
associate you with your parents' birthplace or your
birthplace....Look at our [sprint] relay. It's an issue."
The Canadian 4x100 relay team is all Caribbean. Bailey and
Robert Esmie were born in Jamaica, Surin in Haiti and Glenroy
Gilbert in Trinidad. Their victory lap at the world
championships, in Goteborg, Sweden, last August, during which
they carried a Canadian flag and beamed as if they had scored
the Stanley Cup-winning goal, raised a question that Bailey now
"Will Canadians love a black athlete?" he asks. "I hope so. I'm
not an idiot. I know that people back home didn't get excited
right after Goteborg. They held their breaths."
This is life in Canada after sprinting's nuclear winter.
Something will grow again, but it will take time. As Bailey
says, "I'm trying to gain the trust of 27 million people." A
gold medal, a nine-point-something and a clean urine sample
won't erase memories of Ben Johnson but will earn Bailey fame,
respect and a place among his event's alltime greats.
"If I run a perfect race," Bailey says, "I'm the best sprinter
The Olympic 100-meter final will take just about as long to
complete as it does for you to read this sentence aloud. On
television it is a blur, eight men churning, pumping and
straining to an abrupt finish, but to Bailey it is as structured
as a sonata. There is a beginning, a middle, an end: 20 meters
of start, 50 meters of acceleration, 30 meters of relaxation.
Friends tease that his job takes 10 seconds. He replies that
getting to Atlanta has taken a lifetime.
There are people who look at Bailey and wonder. When he runs, he
is not smooth like Lewis or Frankie Fredericks of Namibia. He is
not conspicuously powerful like Britain's Linford Christie.
Sure, he won the worlds, but 17 days earlier he hadn't even made
the finals in Oslo.
"There are knowledgeable track people who think Goteborg was a
fluke," says Dan Pfaff, a University of Texas assistant who
coaches Bailey. "Call someone in England. They'll tell you the
real sprinter, Linford, was hurt." Even though Bailey set his
first world record this year, in the indoor 50 meters, some
doubt he will win in Atlanta because his form can't hold for
four rounds of sprinting.
Bailey craves neatness, order, organization--"Donovan will
refold the towels to make sure the creases are in the same
place," says his companion, Michelle Mullin--but he can be a
mess over 100 meters. Sometimes he covers the distance in 48
strides; other times he needs 51 or 52. Because of a
neurological disorder in his left hip, he strides farther with
his right leg than with his left. The imbalance sometimes causes
him to wobble out of the blocks. He might arch his spine or lift
his head. The only man under 10 seconds at the worlds looked
like someone dashing for the last chopper out of Saigon.
"Look at tape of the worlds," Bailey says. "I skate out of the
blocks. My head is up. My back is arched. I'm O.K. from 30
[meters] to 70, but I scream at that point because I start
losing it. Sprinting is power, explosion. It's like dunking a
basketball. Goteborg was me coming down the lane for a
two-handed tomahawk dunk and then slipping to the side of the
basket and doing a one-hander. It's like, Oh, well."
The basketball analogy is not to be taken lightly; that sport is
Bailey's first love. He has a scar on his right eyebrow from
banging his head on the rim. Bailey claims he has a 52-inch
vertical leap--no doubt flying over Babe, the Blue Ox, on his
way to the hoop--but friends say 42 inches is about right.
Bailey played one season at Sheridan College in Oakville, where
it became clear he would never make his mark on the world as a
6-foot power forward. But he had other plans, lots of them. He
set himself up as a marketing and investment consultant. By 22
he owned a house and had paid cash for a Porsche 911 convertible.
"I could have left high school and run track right away, but
that wasn't what I wanted," Bailey says. "I wanted a nice house,
money, fast cars. I was taught to work real hard, to work on my
own. When I got the material things I wanted and turned back to
sprinting, I think it worked against me. Coaches said I had a
bad attitude, that I didn't have a work ethic. I think they
resented me. I was a 22-year-old with a Porsche, and they were
35-year-old men driving station wagons."
Bailey wasn't on grand terms with Athletics Canada, his sport's
domestic governing body, either. He grew angry when he was left
off Canada's teams for the 1991 worlds and the 1992 Olympics. He
made the 1993 worlds, in Stuttgart, only to be dropped from the
relay, a decision that left Bailey grousing to anyone in
earshot. Pfaff happened to be in earshot. The two of them leaned
against the fence at the Stuttgart practice track--Bailey
griping while Pfaff (who was then coaching at LSU and working
with Gilbert, a friend of Bailey's since high school) listened.
Pfaff finally told him, "You could be one of the best," and
invited him to Baton Rouge.
The world is lousy with 10.36 sprinters--Bailey had never run a
faster legal time--but Pfaff could look beyond the flapping
mouth and see the rest of the package. There was the proper
distribution of muscle mass, the balance between quadriceps and
hamstrings and the incredible levers in those impossibly long
legs. Bailey looks like he has been constructed from spare
parts. He wears a size-46 jacket but has a 28-inch waist and a
34-inch inseam. When he gets up from a chair, he does it in
In March 1994, Bailey arrived at LSU prepared to give track one
final shot. If it didn't work out, he figured, he would manage
the real estate investments he holds with his brother, O'Neil.
Pfaff had him sprint 60 meters and then shooed him off to the
weight room to lift with a javelin thrower. Laverne Eve cleaned
"A woman," Bailey says. "I was embarrassed."
He had reason to be. "He came down out of shape, and he also was
a nightmare from the biomechanical standpoint," Pfaff says. "One
foot splayed out 30 degrees, the other 25. He dragged one leg
when he ran, his head was back, he wasn't breathing, and his
arms flailed. He was maybe more of a project than I thought."
After three months of sprinting and lifting and improving his
diet, Bailey trimmed a third of a second from his time. To the
track world, his 10.03 seemed to come out of nowhere. Last year
he continued to shave off tenths and hundredths. In April he ran
a 9.99 despite "showing off," as Pfaff puts it, over the last 40
meters. In June he clocked a 9.91, just .06 off Leroy Burrell's
world record. At the worlds, Bailey's winning time was 9.97, the
same as he clocked when he finished third at a Grand Prix meet
Bailey has been tinkering with his start in preparation for
Atlanta. Ben Johnson--that man again--once said, "Gun go, the race
be over," and Bailey will never explode out of the blocks like
that. But he has improved his starts by working with Mark McKoy,
the 1992 gold medalist in the 110-meter hurdles. After Bailey
whipped him to 40 meters three straight times one afternoon in
Austin, McKoy said, "My man's learned to start now."
"No way," Bailey protested. "I used to think, Today, I'm going
to have a good start." He pantomimed a starter's gun. "Pow!"
Bailey froze. "Go? Oh, that means go?" And he reared his head
and laughed at his own frailty.
The moment was human, charming and decidedly self-effacing for a
sprinter. They are an odd lot--moody, high-strung, secretive.
Bailey is quick-tempered but also remarkably social. His
entourage consists only of his coach, his physiotherapist and,
occasionally, his agent. Compared to the preening Lewis, the
raging Dennis Mitchell and the brooding Christie ("Mr.
Stonehenge," Bailey calls him with a smile), Bailey could be the
neighbor who car-pools on Tuesdays.
"Donovan was calm before Goteborg, and all those other guys were
tense," says Pfaff, "and I think it's because he had a life
before sprinting and knows he'll have a life after sprinting. If
all hell broke loose and he ended up penniless, he'd still have
friends. There aren't many people on the continent who could
make that statement."
Donovan Bailey and Michelle Mullin have a daughter, Adrienna,
who turns two in August. Bailey was racing in Europe when she
was born, when she cut her first tooth, when she took her first
steps, when she first said "Da-Da." He says there is more to
life than 10-second intervals on the track, so this had better
be his time, his Olympics.
They know Bailey a bit better now in Canada than they did when
the snow was on the ground. He appears in soft drink
commercials, in ads for a cosmetic company. His has slowly
become a household face. The bandwagon lurches forward, more
slowly than Ben Johnson's, which steamrollered everything,
including good sense.
Bailey says he knows exactly how the 100-meter final in Atlanta
will go. He says he can name the medalists even now, and he
promises to put his prediction in an envelope before opening
ceremonies and open it after the race. The race, he says, won't
be over after 30 meters because no one accelerates in the middle
of a race the way he does. Wait until 70, Bailey says.
"I'll win if I do everything right," he says. Chin down. Back
straight. Relax. Most of all, breathe. The Olympic 100 meters
nears, and Donovan Bailey, like his country, is waiting to exhale.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. [Donovan Bailey running]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. BAILEY, WHO HAS VASTLY IMPROVED HIS ONCE HORRIBLE RUNNING FORM, SAYS HIS KEY TO WINNING THE 100 IS POWERFUL ACCELERATION BETWEEN 20 AND 70 METERS [Donovan Bailey running]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. "WILL CANADIANS LOVE A BLACK ATHLETE?" ASKS BAILEY. "I HOPE SO" [Donovan Bailey]