Publish date:



Briefly, the sport had life. This was at 12 minutes before six
on Sunday afternoon in the pale, artificial light of the Toronto
SkyDome, when Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson were called to
their marks for a 150-meter match race to determine (some said)
the World's Fastest Human and (most agreed) the prognosis for
track and field in North America. At the starter's call Bailey
formed his mouth into a circle and desperately sucked air into
his lungs, while Johnson stood momentarily frozen to Bailey's
right, a palpable chill between them. The building went silent,
and anyone with a pulse could feel it in his throat.

This was long after the sport's most intriguing event in many
years had been entrusted to a comically overmatched small-time
outfit that came close to being forced to cancel the race, only
to be rescued by a swashbuckling Toronto millionaire whose nom
de deal is Fast Eddie. This was after Bailey, the 100-meter
Olympic champion and world-record holder from Canada, had for
several weeks undercut the only reason to run the race at all,
protesting repeatedly that it wouldn't determine the World's
Fastest Human, because he had won that title in Atlanta. This
was scarcely 24 hours after Bailey had threatened to pull out of
the race in a dispute over the track design and then had issued
a pathetic press release, stating that he was running "under
duress" caused by the organizers' ineptitude.

And this was before Bailey popped from his blocks and shockingly
jumped Johnson 10 strides into the race, overhauling the
previously untouchable Olympic 200- and 400-meter champion from
the U.S. before they left the turn at 75 meters, shortly after
which Johnson briefly eyeballed Bailey, grabbed his own left
thigh and pulled up, violating--unwittingly or otherwise--the
last principle of an event whose credibility hung by a thread:
Both men must finish the damn race.

This all came at the tail end of a lost weekend for track and
field. On the Saturday morning before the Toronto race, the
International Amateur Athletic Federation, the governing body
for the sport, suspended Mary Slaney--the most famous and
successful U.S. women's middle-distance runner in history--and
hurdler Sandra Farmer-Patrick, both of whom had been found to
have suspicious testosterone levels at last year's U.S. Olympic
trials. Hours later, a two-mile quasi match race between two of
the world's foremost distance runners, Algeria's Noureddine
Morceli and Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie, in Hengelo, the
Netherlands, with $1 million promised to the winner if he broke
the eight-minute barrier, was spoiled when Morceli ran
listlessly, then dropped out with a lap to run. Gebrselassie
went on to break the world record with a time of 8:01.08. "Our
sport has lost ground in Europe, too," promoter Jos Hermens said
before the two-mile. "We need new things." Instead, 22,000 fans
got a stopwatch cakewalk that only a track nut could appreciate.
On Saturday night Frankie Fredericks of Namibia, a four-time
Olympic silver medalist at 100 and 200 meters who was peeved at
his exclusion from the Toronto race, failed to show for a
150-meter race in Cardiff, Wales, at which he had promised to
lay down a swift 150 that neither Bailey nor Johnson would
match. A conference call during which Fredericks, who was at
home in Monte Carlo, was to have explained his absence failed to
materialize as well, supposedly due to telephone problems.

In all, a weekend that was to herald a new era for track and
field was instead a train wreck. Bailey is surely thrilled; his
title is secure, as is his reputation for growing very large in
the biggest races, and if all the bills are paid he will be $1.5
million richer. Canadian fans are giddy at the mastery of a
drug-free Jamaican immigrant (unlike Ben Johnson) over American
sprinters. But the list of those enriched by the events of
Saturday and Sunday is short indeed, and does not include track
and field.

The idea of Bailey and Johnson running against each other at the
hybrid distance was born last August in Atlanta, on the night
after Johnson's epochal 19.32-second performance in the 200
meters. The midwife was none other than NBC's Bob Costas, who
ignorantly split Johnson's time in half, came up with 9.66, and
since Bailey's world record in the 100 was 9.84, declared
Johnson the World's Fastest Human. (If you think of Johnson's
time in the 200 as the product of two equal 100s--which, of
course, you can't--you must consider that one of them includes a
flying start; off a flying start in the Olympic 4x100 relay,
Bailey ran an 8.95.) "It was a person who knew nothing about
track talking about it with a lot of people listening," Bailey
said. But it struck a nerve. The question--didn't Johnson
deserve the title of World's Fastest?--was asked at subsequent
European meets. Bailey and Johnson got into a shouting match
before a meet in Berlin.

Three promoters made offers to stage a 150-meter race; just two
of the offers were significant. One came from Nova
International, a Newcastle, England-based company operated by
former distance runner Brendan Foster, and the other came from
Magellan Entertainment Group, a company for which Bailey had
made a post-Olympic appearance. The bid went to Magellan, which
guaranteed a $500,000 appearance fee to each athlete, with an
additional $1 million to the winner. Magellan also proposed an
"undercard" of other events. The boxing metaphor was ominous for
anyone familiar with the nefarious business of that sport.

Once announced, the race was hailed as a vehicle to save a dying
sport. One year after crowds filled the Atlanta Olympic Stadium
for morning heats, four indoor and two major outdoor U.S. meets
were canceled for lack of interest. "We need something to get us
to the year 2000, to the next Olympic Games," said U.S. sprinter
Jon Drummond. "Jesse Owens raced against a horse once. I'd race
against a horse for a million dollars, if that's what it takes
to keep it alive."

Bailey and Johnson ripped each other venomously from late winter
until the day before the race. If the sniping was contrived, it
was also believable. From Bailey: "Michael's ego needs a title;
mine doesn't." From Johnson: "The original idea was to run last
summer, while we were both hot. Donovan wouldn't do that,
because he was getting his ass kicked all over Europe by Dennis
Mitchell. Fine, he should have said, 'I'm the World's Fastest
Human next June.'"

While anticipation built, Magellan drowned. It is a small
company that specializes in motivational seminars for
corporations, but it had never attempted anything as ambitious
as this race. Magellan's executive director Salim Khoja once
served jail time for fraud, and president Giselle Briden
declared personal bankruptcy in 1992, facts that were reported
by the Canadian newsmagazine Venture last December, leaving
Khoja and Briden in a hopelessly weak negotiating position with
race sponsors and TV networks. (CBS bought the U.S. rights for a
bargain-basement $50,000.) By early May, Magellan was behind in
paying many of the race's organizing costs, and creditors were
clamoring at the company's door. Khoja and Briden asked Toronto
dealmaker Edwin Cogan, who had been working behind the scenes
since December, to bail them out.

"They got in over their heads, and then they surrendered," said
Cogan a day before the race. A 62-year-old with fierce blue eyes
that must be hell across a negotiating table, Cogan claims to
have brokered $25 billion in deals in his lifetime. For this
race, he estimates that he fronted roughly $1 million, ensuring
that the race would go on and that Bailey and Johnson would be
paid their aggregate $2 million. Cogan associate Dennis Jewitt
was put in charge of restructuring the event's finances. "I
might make $100,000 out of this, I might lose $100,000," Cogan
said. "It's insignificant money."

The final three days stretched credulity. On Friday evening
Bailey entered the SkyDome to examine the track for the first
time and was shocked at the tight radius of the turn. He
simmered overnight and returned to work out on Saturday, at the
same time as Johnson. Bailey and his agent, former Irish miler
Ray Flynn, asked Jewitt and Cogan to move the finish line 11.8
meters down the track. They refused. "We'd lose 5,000 seats and
two cameras," Jewitt said. "Impossible."

Johnson said, "If they move it, I won't run. Donovan is just
looking for any excuse to get out of this race."

Bailey returned to his hotel, hung out with friends and family
from the Toronto suburb of Oakville, and hacked on his laptop
until the small hours of Sunday morning. Flynn talked him out of
holding a press conference before the race but couldn't persuade
him not to issue a press release. At 10 a.m. on Sunday, Flynn's
21-year-old nephew, Ryan Clement, who is also the starting
quarterback for the University of Miami, was awakened in his
Toronto hotel by a call from his aunt Jane. "Donovan doesn't
have anybody to write press releases, so they asked me to do
it," Clement said. (While this is lousy publicity for track,
it's terrific for Miami.) He wrote in longhand, and Bailey
tinkered with it before his coach, Dan Pfaff, typed it up. The
17-line statement damned race promoters for their "egregious
miscarriage of the competitive spirit of this competition."
Flynn claimed he had been told that the curve would be
equivalent to that found in lanes 7 and 8 of an ordinary track,
while Johnson and his manager, Brad Hunt, said they were told it
would approximate the tighter lanes 3 and 4. Roland Muller,
architect for Mondo America, which built and installed the
track, said, "I was told to make lanes 3 and 4." The press
release, however cathartic for Bailey, smelled like a
prepackaged bailout.

As it turned out, Bailey didn't need an excuse. He was
brilliant, scorching Johnson on the curve, where it had been
assumed that Johnson would be far superior. "If I was two steps
behind coming off the turn, he was in trouble," Bailey said. He
then stuck the knife deeper, accusing Johnson of feigning injury
to salvage pride. "It's obvious that the gap was going to get
bigger and my butt was going to get smaller and smaller as I
pulled away from him," Bailey said. "He knew he was going to get
hammered after the first 30 meters, so he knew he had to pull up."

Runners tank to preserve ego and earning power, though Johnson
never has. Still, there was a buzz before this race that with so
much for each man to lose, surely somebody would pull up rather
than be beaten. "I lost the race with an injury," Johnson said.
Although Bailey softened his stance some on Monday with a
statement offering his hope that "the injury he sustained is not
season-threatening," it appeared that when Johnson reached for
his thigh, he was already toast. Now he must live with knowing
that in the most publicized race of his generation, he never
reached the finish line. The reason doesn't matter.

After crouching on the track, Johnson limped to the bleachers,
while Bailey celebrated wildly. The momentary thrill of the
start was long dead, and in its place was this image: Two great
sprinters, one with an excuse he didn't need, the other with an
excuse nobody wanted to hear, and everyone around them scarred
by the experience.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Bailey was all alone at the finish because, he says, Johnson pulled up when he knew he was beaten. [Donovan Bailey looking back at Michael Johnson in race]

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS As the runners came out of the turn at 75 meters and headed home, the lead belonged to Bailey. [Michael Johnson and Donovan Bailey in race]

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES It was a solitary stroll home for Johnson, who maintained, "I lost the race with an injury." [Michael Johnson walking on track]