We talk to Donovan Bailey about national pride, his 150-metre race against American Michael Johnson, and his legacy as one of Canada's all-time great track and field athletes.
On June 1, 1997, Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson faced off in a one-on-one race at the SkyDome in Toronto to determine the unofficial title of World's Fastest Man. A year earlier, at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Bailey had won the 100-metre gold medal in record time, while Johnson ran a world record time to capture the 200-metre gold, and an Olympic record time when he placed first in the 400-metre. The race was billed as a heavyweight prize fight, but ended up being anticlimactic, as Johnson pulled up with a quad injury, allowing Bailey to easily win the hyped-up event.
Twenty years later, we spoke to Bailey to reflect back on the race, his rivalry with Johnson, where it ranks in his career accomplishments, and more.
[Johnson-Bailey race video via CBC]
VICE Sports: After winning at the 1996 Olympics and setting the world record with a time of 9.84 seconds in the 100-metre, did you feel like you had earned the title of World's Fastest Man?
Donovan Bailey: You don't earn the World's Fastest Man title. Either you are or you're not. I wasn't vying for a title. When you break the world record in the 100-metre, you are that person. Usain Bolt is the World's Fastest Man. There's definitely no argument. 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.
Did you feel personally disrespected at all because a lot of talk about the '96 Olympics centered around Michael Johnson being the World's Fastest Man after he won the 200-metre and 400-metre race at the '96 Olympics?
Not really. Bob Costas—the great Bob Costas, who I like a lot—decided that he was going to somehow, with some sort of creative math, figure out that a guy running the 200-metre is faster than the guy running the 100-metre. Economically, it turned out to be a great thing for Michael and myself, but definitely Bob started that and Michael bought into it, and it was probably his mistake that he bought into it.
Did you feel like you were also operating in Ben Johnson's shadow, and had to answer more questions about whether you were clean as a result?
With all the things I've accomplished, you can do your own research, you can do a quick reading of other people who were relatively close (in what they've accomplished) and the credit that's been bestowed upon them. I did it right, I can go to bed very happy at night—I go to sleep very happy at night that I did it right, [and] that I achieved more than any athlete in the history of this country, so that's left up to the people.
Before this one-on-one race, did you have a relationship with Johnson at all?
No, not really. I don't know Michael. I still don't. Michael and I have worked together at the BBC, but I didn't know Michael before the race, we still don't know each other. I definitely respect him for being one of the best speed endurance guys but that's different from the type of races I run. It's like comparing an Indy 500 car with one of the speed cars, the one that goes to the sand dune. It'd be like an Indy car going around the circles efficiently and one with a massive engine that goes very fast and very quickly and runs out of fuel.
So, after the '96 Olympics, how did this 150-metre one-on-one event come together?
It started from Atlanta, and the fact that there were two breakout major stars, one was American, one was Canadian who represented the rest of the world. That's essentially how it started. Michael and I broke world records, and we thought this event would be a good race between the two, so the 150-metre distance was decided. We also knew that because we were big stars, we could certainly fill stadiums. We were filling stadiums individually, and we decided that this would be the biggest thing. What we were doing was putting the two best people in the sport against each other. It's one-on-one. It's truly what professional track and field is.
Did you personally have a problem or concern about running the 150-metre distance?
The 100-metre is where speed is always measured, but I had ran against Michael in the 100-metre and he wasn't even close. We just thought the 150-metre would be good. Like I said, I wasn't vying for any title. It was more about bringing the event to Toronto. We, Canadians, were not getting the Summer Olympics Games—and I don't know when that will ever be—but this was going to be my Summer Olympics since Canada has never hosted one. It was great that Canadians, Torontonians, got to see their very best going against the world's very best at the time.
"Other than Usain Bolt, I'm the fastest top speed runner in the history of the planet."
How was the preparation for this race different for you than other races?
First of all, I've never, ever prepared for any race more than that race. Ever. I had Canada on my shoulders for sure, and like I said, I was representing the world. It was the world against the USA. I had never been prepared moreso for that race than any other race. It was quite difficult, and quite different. I had to lean out a little bit. Also running the corner for the 150-metre took a toll on my body later on in the year at the World Championships. There was a lot of distance. In the usual years, I'd run indoors and run 50s and 60s in practice. I was doing more 150s, 200s and 250s for this race.
How confident were you before the race?
Extremely confident. There was absolutely no way I could have lost that. I'm a better starter than Michael. I'm a better curve runner than Michael. I was on the inside lane which is what I wanted, because I really wanted to gauge where I was based on where his body position was. If you watch the race, you'll recognize that I caught him in three strides out of the box. I caught him already. Which means when I came off the turn, it was probably going to be a 10-metre victory, so I wasn't really worried about it. I was very confident.
Who had more to lose in this race?
I don't think anyone did. Seriously, in reflecting back I don't think anyone had more to lose. Michael and I were trailblazers. Michael and I both gained financially. The race was the highest-rated track and field program outside of the Olympic Games. It was the most watched. It was on pay-per-view. I don't think there were any losers at all. The winners were the fans who got to see the two greatest track and field athletes go head to head.
Were you upset at the configuration of the 150-metre track inside the SkyDome?
Absolutely, because we were training on a regular 400-metre track outdoors, but when we actually got to the SkyDome, it was a lot tighter than a regular track because you couldn't configure it inside a baseball stadium. So yes, I was a tad upset, but I think all of those emotions I had, I absorbed them to motivate me to change my race strategy.
There was talk that the race might be cancelled, that you might drop out at the last minute—was there ever serious consideration to not racing?
[laughs] Oh, never. There was no chance of that. I'm at home, in front of the Canadian fans, in front of the world. There was zero chance.
The race happens, you win handily, Michael pulls up toward the end, and you are interviewed by CBC's Mark Lee immediately afterward and called Michael a chicken for pulling up. If you had to do it again, would you have reacted the same?
I certainly apologize and recognize that you learn sometimes when your adrenaline is that high and someone sticks a microphone in your face you should probably learn to take a deep breath and understand that everyone is watching, including your parents and your kids. You know, I don't know what my reaction would be today. I think that I'm obviously a hell of a lot more media savvy today. These are the things I teach the young kids now that are competing. They need to take a deep breath and understand that it lives on forever. But in actual fact, there was a ton of Canadians who felt that was an on-the-podium moment. They were tired of being the little stepbrother and finally we were the big brother.
Did you believe at the time that Michael was injured, and do you believe that today?
I don't know what's in Michael's mind so you have to ask him that. I had passed him 15 metres into the race. 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. I don't know what happened, he said he had a cramp.
After the race, I heard you got a congratulatory call from the prime minister Jean Chretien. Did you hear from anyone else prominent as well?
[laughs] Yes. I actually went golfing with him, but yes, I had spoken to him the year before too at the Olympics. Good guy, real good dude. You know, the professional sports world, it's a small fraternity. I think Isiah Thomas was with the Toronto Raptors at the time, tons of guys, all my basketball and baseball buddies were around, and some Hollywood people. My friends were around, yes. I'm not going to name drop [laughs]. They were all there, they were all together, everyone celebrated. Everyone.
You've accomplished so much in your career. Where does winning the 150-metre race against Michael Johnson rank?
I think when you set up a bucket list, this was definitely not a part of that. The 150-metre race was a show, it was brought on because it was a great marketing thing for Michael, myself, and the sport. I mean it's up there. But certainly being the Olympic champion, winning the World Championships, being the world record holder, having the Canadian record, and I have the indoor record still, there was definitely a lot of things before this. But it's certainly in the top 10.
What about where it ranks on the all-time top Canadian sports moments?
I don't know. I've been blessed. My 100-metre win at the '96 Olympics is considered one of the top two Canadian sports moments in history. I think only the 1972 Summit Series [an ice hockey tournament between Canada and the Soviets] is in front of it. So I don't know where winning the 150-metre would rank in Canadian sports history. I think Canadians as a whole just recognized that sometimes when you step on the world stage, you should step on the world stage with confidence and that's really what I brought. I hope Canadian athletes have more confidence when they step on the world stage.
Have you talked to Michael about the race?
[laughs] No, no. That's a topic that he doesn't talk about. I don't think Michael enjoys discussing the 150-metre.
Is there one question about the race you'd want to ask Michael if you had a chance?
You know what, I wouldn't ask him any one question. I think if there's a hatchet to be buried, the hatchet would be that I totally respect him as one of the best speed endurance guys with his times in the 200 and 400 and that was it. Any time you step into a race, you go in, you prepare, you get the results, and you move on from it.
Twenty years later, how should the Bailey-Johnson 150-metre race be remembered?
The race should be remembered for that fact that Michael and I are trailblazers and trendsetters. We started something that's still prevalent today. Usain Bolt is a top star in track and field, and he's in Brazil and the UK running the 150-metre. None of these things happen if Michael and I didn't step on the track that day. We're definitely trailblazers, stars who were true aficionados and we understood the balance between sports and entertaining the fans.