Someone small began the second Saturday in Atlanta with an act
so twisted that it threatened to suck every warm feeling of
these Games into a joyless black hole. Who could think of
anything else after the bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic
Park? How could mere games matter anymore?
Donovan Bailey made them matter. That night the world-champion
Canadian sprinter, who has long been overshadowed in his country
by a disgraced Ben Johnson, became a star. While everyone was
looking to Namibia's Frankie Fredericks or Britain's Linford
Christie or the U.S.'s Dennis Mitchell, Bailey blasted through
the thick night air of Olympic Stadium, past the finest
100-meter field in history, and crossed the finish line in a
world-record of 9.84. As he looked back to see his time, his
mouth opened in astonishment and joy, and he brought back what
had been taken away.
Understand, everything about the 100 is too flashy, overhyped,
large, and that is precisely what was needed that day. This was
not a time for sweet gymnasts or another modest swimmer. Nothing
distills the Olympics to its essence like the men's 100:
Sprinters carry themselves with self- importance, and the scale
of the event suits their outsized arrogance.
This lineup was like a scene from a madhouse--Mitchell, ring in
his eyebrow, face a paroxysm of twitches, nattering on and on to
himself. Bailey and Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago, eyes
closed and breathing deeply. Christie standing as still as
Michelangelo's David, face blank. All of them certain this was
the most important thing in the world.
Of course, it was just a glorified foot race. Christie false
started twice and refused to leave the track. He and Boldon
nearly came to blows. Of course, it was absurd, but to see men
so consumed by a challenge served a cleansing need.
They cared so much, and because of that you were carried along.
You forgot the morning. You couldn't help but think, This
COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. [Donovan Bailey and Frankie Fredericks in race]