Donovan Bailey vs. Michael Johnson: The Biggest Race That Never Happened
On the 20th anniversary of the Bailey-Johnson 150-metre race at SkyDome, we look back at the circus show that was supposed to settle the World's Fastest Man title.
Photo by Fotografía de Bill SIkes/AP vía The Canadian Press
At the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Donovan Bailey ran a world record time of 9.84 seconds in the men's 100-metre race, becoming the first Canadian to win Olympic gold in the event since Percy Williams accomplished the feat at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam. It was the crowning moment of Bailey's track and field career. He had laid claim to the World's Fastest Man title. "There was definitely no argument," Bailey recently told VICE Sports. "I didn't feel like I needed to earn anything. It was something I had done in Atlanta. There was absolutely no argument from my perspective, or from a majority of the world."
The majority, though, did not include NBC and the American broadcast of the Olympics, which celebrated Michael Johnson's world record in the men's 200-metre and Olympic record in the 400-metre, and pointed out that his top speed in the former race was faster than Bailey's in the 100-metre. Johnson, they said, had broken a world record that lasted longer than the one Bailey broke and did so by a greater margin than the previous record.
"Because of Johnson's double gold medal, his charisma, and the atmosphere on home turf in Atlanta, Bailey may have felt underappreciated," longtime broadcaster Bob Costas told VICE Sports. "And that's understandable."
For Canadians, who had to endure Ben Johnson's world-record-setting run and subsequent disqualification at the 1988 Olympics, the fact that Bailey's claim to the World's Fastest Man title was not unanimous was considered a slight, a fact that Mark Lee—a broadcaster for CBC at the time—noticed as well. "There was a lot of heated controversy in Canada that how dare the Americans take that title from Donovan Bailey when he had achieved that in the time honoured fashion of winning the 100-metre," he said to VICE Sports.
"The human race has always recorded the fastest man as the winner in the 100-metre, not the 200-metre, not the 400-metre."
[Johnson-Bailey race video via CBC]
There was enough debate surrounding Bailey-Johnson and the trendy title that several groups started to consider setting up a one-on-one race between the two. Eventually, Magellan Entertainment Group stepped up to finance the event. It would be held on June 1, 1997 at the SkyDome in Toronto. The event would be a head-to-head 150-metre race, with $500,000 going to both participants, and an additional $1 million to the winner of the race.
Dan Pfaff, Bailey's trainer, called preparing for this race a more stressful process than the Olympics. "There was a lot of variables we couldn't control," he recalled in a conversation with VICE Sports. "It's a distance we haven't officially raced before. It was a winner-take-all. There was the prize money element. We were running at home. There was just a lot of factors, where I didn't know if career wise it was worth the risk."
Bailey saw it as an opportunity to represent his country on his home turf, and give Canada its own version of the Summer Olympics. "I've never, ever prepared for any race more than that race," Bailey said. "I had Canada on my shoulders."
Bailey leaned out his body, focused on running the bend—something he didn't have to do when training for the 100-metre—and started practicing at running distances up to 250 metres versus the 50 metres he typically ran in training. Johnson, who did not respond to several requests from VICE Sports to be interviewed for this story, focused on improving his starts in preparation for this race, and moved up his training schedule, according to his agent Brad Hunt.
"Most of the time, world-class track athletes are not reaching their peak until mid-to-late summer," Hunt said. "It was an effort to push forward the type of training he would normally do for a championship race in order to be ready for June."
The one-on-one format was a unique spectacle for track and field, but in the lead-up to the race, several factors threatened to derail the entire event. Magellan—whose previous business experience was largely in the field of motivational seminars—ran into financial problems and required local businessman Edwin Cogan to provide a bailout of more than $1 million in order to pay Bailey and Johnson.
When the two sprinters arrived at the SkyDome to inspect the track, they took issue with the set-up. Roland Muller, the architect tasked by a company named Mondo to design the track installation, had a once-in-a-lifetime challenge of creating a 150-metre track into a baseball stadium. Without room to build a straightaway 150-metre track, Muller came up with a 75-metre bend and a 75-metre straight lane. "We were trying to get as wide a bend and as wide as a radius as possible," Muller told VICE Sports. "For the big sprinter guys, the less tight the curve, the easier is it for them to run. They wanted as broad a bend as possible, that was the real design challenge."
Johnson, who would run in the outside lane, believed that he would be running a longer distance than Bailey based on the geometrical layout of the track. Bailey asked for the length of the track to be extended, and was so upset that he issued a written statement before the race that he would be "running under mental duress." Despite the reservations from both sides, after months of training and speculation and a near cancellation, the stage was set for the world's two greatest track and field athletes to face off.
With over 30,000 fans at the SkyDome, and over 600 media members covering the event, Bailey-Johnson had the feel of a heavyweight prize fight. Both sides had reason to believe they were the favourite. Pfaff had done data analysis leading up to the race and felt that Bailey would be victorious if he could win the first 50 metres. Hunt remembers Johnson being confident and relaxed before the race, and thought the last 50 metres would determine the winner.
"That's what the whole buildup was," Hunt said. "What was going to happen in the last 50? Can the 100-metre guy hold on for the full 150 metres, or can the 200-metre guy pass him? I think that's what the experts were waiting to see."
The final 50 metres did not matter. Bailey ran a better bend than Johnson and was leading by several strides when the American pulled up with a strained quadricep muscle. As he neared the finish line, having clinched the race, Bailey looked back to see Johnson limping, winning the race with a time of 14.99 seconds. After the race, the two sprinters shook hands before Bailey was interviewed by Mark Lee of CBC.
Frustrated that he had been denied his moment, Bailey expressed skepticism about Johnson's injury. "He didn't pull up," Bailey said. "He's a chicken."
Today, Bailey is apologetic about his post-race interview, but also views it as a moment when he represented Canada and expressed the country's frustration of being the little stepbrother to the United States. Bailey declined to speculate about the validity of Johnson's injury, instead choosing to focus on the fact that the race was decided well before Johnson pulled up.
"I had passed him 15 metres into the race," Bailey said. "I was ahead and there was no chance I would be ran down. Other than Usain Bolt, I'm the fastest top speed runner in the history of the planet. I was never going to get run down by anybody. Within 15 metres, I was ahead, so I don't know what he was going to do (to catch me). Michael is smart enough to know that he was never going to catch me. That was not going to happen ever."
After the race, when Johnson was asked about whether he was really injured, he said "next question." When asked about Bailey's post-race interview, Johnson turned the other cheek. "That's saying a lot about what kind of person he is," Johnson said. "I'm going to show you what kind of person I am. I'm not going to address that."
If the result of the race was a disappointment, Hunt believes his client was more distraught that the finish meant track and field would not get another opportunity to have mainstream spotlight in a non-Olympic year.
"He was let down that the event was not successful," Hunt said. "Sports is sports. Athletes get hurt, and Michael had been hurt before. That aspect of it wasn't demoralizing for him, but the idea that we had all put a lot of effort and a lot of hope into this event being something that gave the sport of track and field a shot in the arm, there's where the disappointment was."
The two megastars returned to their regular schedule after the race. At the Athens World Championships in August, Bailey finished second in the men's 100-metre race to US sprinter Maurice Greene, who won gold with a time of 9.86 seconds. Johnson won the gold medal in the men's 400-metre.
A rematch never happened. In fact, track and field has not seen an event like Bailey-Johnson in the two decades since. "You've got to take some risks," Hunt said. "If you're going to move something forward, you have to stick your neck out and be vulnerable, that's what this race was. It's like the track world went back into its shell again, like, 'Oh gosh, look at what happened, someone tried to do something different, something out of the box,' and it fell flat."
Today, the race is remembered as more of a footnote in Bailey and Johnson's illustrious careers. Outside of Canada, there are many people who barely remember the race at all.
"It was a trumped up event that wouldn't have settled much," Costas said, "and wound up settling nothing."
Bailey calls it a top-10 moment in his career, and believes there's only one way to remember the race. "The race should be remembered for that fact that Michael and I are trailblazers and trendsetters. We started something that's still prevalent today," Bailey said. "We're definitely trailblazers, stars who were true aficionados and we understood the balance between sports and entertaining the fans."
The event did provide plenty of entertainment, but the race itself was anticlimactic. It's a great what-if to consider. If Johnson had not pulled up with an injury, perhaps we get a photo finish, or a result close enough that we could have seen a rematch, or possibly this could have been the start of one-on-one track and field events on a regular basis, and launched this sort of spectacle into the mainstream.
But Johnson pulled up. Bailey ran away. And we'll never know. "I look at that race as a bit of a circus act," Lee said. "It was never consummated. The tragic part of that race was that Michael Johnson didn't finish and we'll never know. There was no race. That's the tragedy."