This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Keep up to date with what’s happening in esports by subscribing here.
You can blame Bob Costas for all of this.
Long before “Hot Take” entered the lexicon, the normally perceptive NBC network dropped a scorcher when comparing the top two sprinters at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. If you halve the world record of 19.32 seconds set by American Michael Johnson in the men’s 200 meters, Costas suggested, that’s 9.66 – considerably faster than the world record of 9.84 set by Canadian Donovan Bailey lined up to win the 100 meters. Ergo, doesn’t that make Johnson the fastest man in the world?
With all due respect to Bob, it doesn’t work that way. For one thing, the unofficial WFM title has always gone to the winner of the 100m. Also, a 200m athlete begins the second half of their race with a running “start.” So no, you can’t just halve the time. Bailey was a little more blunt about Costa’s voodoo math, dismissing it as “a person who knew nothing about tracks and talked about it while a lot of people were listening”.
No one really took Costas’ calculation seriously, but a seed was planted nonetheless. Who was actually faster? Was it Johnson who made history in Atlanta by becoming the first (and still the only) man to win both the 200m and 400m gold at the same Olympics? Or Bailey, who won the Marquee of the Games in world record time before leading Canada to gold in the 4x100m relay? Predictably, one’s answer to that question depended heavily on the passport in their pocket. Most Americans would likely go with Johnson, while the vast majority of Canadians supported Bailey – and seemed offended that anyone would dare suggest otherwise.
CLOCK | CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo takes you behind the scenes of Bailey vs Johnson:
To be fair to these Americans and Costas, there was a grain of truth to his Galaxy Brain theory about Johnson. Our Canadian pride aside, the man in the gold shoes was objective the Atlanta Games star. Competing on home soil, he managed the historic men’s 200-400 doubles while setting a world record in the former and an Olympic record in the latter. That’s a damn good story. Yes, Bailey’s win was a stamping moment here in Canada – one of the greatest sporting achievements in the country’s history. But if we’re being honest, Atlanta ’96 was the Michael Johnson Olympiad.
Of course, that didn’t help cool the debate between Bailey and Johnson after those games. The subjects even added oil to the fire, with Bailey saying, “The American media tried to do it [Johnson] a superstar. But there are two glamor events in the Olympics, the 100 meters and the 4×100 relay, and we Canadians have smoked them in both.” Later, CBC sports announcer Brian Williams Johnson bluntly asked, “Michael, who’s the fastest man of the world?” Johnson replied, “I am.”
Lured by a promoter’s offer of $500,000 in entry fees for each man and an additional $1 million for the winner, Bailey and Johnson agreed to meet in the middle and settle their differences with a 150-meter match race at the June 1, 1997 at what was then known as the SkyDome in Toronto. Then the art of playing really began.
The event almost fell apart at the last minute when Bailey, thinking he had completed a course with a 50m corner at the start followed by a 100m straight, showed up to find the layout was 75m/75m was. Donovan nearly dropped out at this point before agreeing to continue the race. But he was careful to hedge against a possible defeat by publicly declaring he was running “under duress”.
Meanwhile, European track fans and sportscrats turned up their noses at all those gauche North Americans licking up this unsanctioned stupidity. “It’s… more like something out of a circus,” sniffed the Italian president of the World Athletics Federation. “And we’re not interested in that.”
But, man, were Canadians ever interested. About 30,000 spectators poured into the massive baseball/soccer stadium and 2.5 million people watched CBC’s live broadcast of what felt like a heavyweight title fight. You could almost feel the displeasure of the Euros when the boisterous crowd didn’t calm down as expected at the start.
CLOCK | Bailey vs. Johnson, 1997 150-yard showdown:
As the gun went off (the runners seemed to hear it well), Bailey electrified the fans by quickly passing Johnson, who began the staggered start several steps ahead. The Canadian scored down the straight with a growing lead, and Johnson suddenly pulled up, signaling a (dubious) leg injury. This stunning turn of events was actually anticipated by the CBC Sports TV producers. Understanding the two racers’ enormous (and enormously fragile) egos, they had their cameramen practice a pull-up. Looking back, between that possibility and Bailey’s preparatory work of blaming the track if he loses, this much should have been clear: neither lad was ever going to lose this race fairly and honestly.
After Bailey crossed the finish line victoriously (in 14.99 seconds, btw), the still jacked Canadian hero tore his rival apart in a legendary post-race interview with CBC Sports’ Mark Lee. “He didn’t show up at all. He’s just a chicken. He’s scared of losing,” Bailey hissed. “I think what he should do, we should do this race again so I can kick his ass one more time.”
When asked directly by a reporter at the subsequent press conference: “Were you really injured or did you quit the race?” Johnson responded with a curt “Next question.” So, in a way, we can never know for sure if it’s a legitimate violation or not. But that’s okay. We all have a pretty good idea of what happened at this track 25 years ago today. Just like we knew who really was the fastest man alive in 1996.