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You can blame Bob Costas for all of this.
Long before “hot pickup” entered the lexicon, the usually savvy NBC anchor threw a scorching sound when comparing the two best sprinters at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. If you suggest Costas, you take the world record of 19.32 seconds that American Michael Johnson ran in a race 200m for men and cut it in half, that’s 9.66 – much faster than the 9.84 world record set by Canadian Donovan Bailey to win the 100m. . Doesn’t that make Johnson the fastest man in the world?
All due respect to Bob, but that’s not how it works. First, the unofficial WFM title always went to the winner of the 100-meter race. Also, a 200-meter runner begins the second half of his race with a “start” of the run. So, no, you can’t just split the time in half. Bailey has reacted more candidly to Kostas’ voodoo math, dismissing her as “someone who knows nothing of the course he talks about with so many people who listen.”
No one took Kostas’ accounts seriously, but nevertheless, a seed was planted. Who was actually faster? Was it Johnson, who made history in Atlanta by becoming the first (and only) man to win gold in the 200m and 400m at the same Olympics? Or Bailey, who won the Games landmark event in world record time before landing Canada for gold in the 4×100m relay? As expected, someone’s answer to this question depends a lot on the passport in their pocket. Most Americans would probably go with Johnson, while the vast majority of Canadians supported Bailey – and it seemed insulting that anyone would dare suggest otherwise.
Watch | CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo takes you behind the scenes of Bailey vs.
To be fair to these Americans and to Kostas, there was a kernel of truth in his galactic brain theory about Johnson. Putting our Canadian pride aside, the man with the golden boot was objective The Atlanta gaming star. Competing on home soil, he achieved a historic men’s 200-400 double while setting a previous world record and an Olympic record in the second. This is a story from hell. Yes, Bailey’s victory was a postage stamp moment here in Canada – one of the greatest sporting achievements in the country’s history. But, if we’re being honest, Atlanta 96 was Michael Johnson’s Olympiad.
Of course, that did nothing to calm the controversy between Billy and Johnson in the aftermath of those games. These people even added fuel to the fire, with Bailey saying that “the American media was trying to make it happen [Johnson] a star. But there are two magical events in the Olympics, the 100m and the 4×100 relay, and we Canadians smoked them both. Later, CBC Sports Presenter Brian Williams asked Johnson, ‘Michael, who is the fastest man in the world? “I am,” Johnson replied.
Bailey and Johnson agreed to meet in the middle and settle their differences in the 150-meter race on June 1, 1997 in what was known at the time, after being tempted with a promoted offer of $500,000 per man and an additional $1 million for the winner. Like SkyDome in Toronto. Then the gaming skill really started.
The event almost collapsed at the last minute when Bailey thought he negotiated a 50m curve track to start followed by a 100m run on the spot, and Bailey found the design was 75m/75m. Donovan almost salvaged the bail at that point before he agreed to go ahead with the race. But he was keen to hedge against a possible defeat by publicly declaring that he would run for “coercion”.
Meanwhile, European track fans and athletes have their noses up at all those miserable North Americans practicing this unauthorized silliness. “This…more like something out of a circus,” said the Italian head of the track’s global governing body. “And we’re not interested in it.”
But, man, the Canadians were absolutely concerned. About 30,000 spectators entered the massive baseball/football stadium, and 2.5 million people watched CBC’s live broadcast of what looked like a fight for the heavyweight title. You can sense the Euro’s disapproval when the boisterous crowd does not calm down as initially expected.
Watch | Bailey vs Johnson, 150m Showdown 1997:
When the pistol went off (the racers seemed to hear it just fine), Bailey excited fans by quickly passing Johnson, who started just a few steps away on a faltering start. The Canadian hit straight with an increasing lead, at which point Johnson abruptly withdrew, indicating a (suspicious) leg injury. This startling turn of events was actually expected by the producers of CBC Sports TV. Understanding the colossal (and extremely fragile) vanities of the two contestants, the paparazzi conducted their shooting practice on a drag. Looking back, between that possibility and Bailey laying the groundwork for blaming the track if he lost, this should have been clear: Neither man would have lost this race fairly and squarely.
After Billy crossed the streak victorious (by the way 14.99 seconds), the still-gloved Canadian champion stormed into his opponent in a legendary post-race interview with CBC Sports’ Mark Lee. Billy spat. “He hasn’t stopped working at all. He’s just a chicken. He’s afraid to lose.” “I think what he has to do, we have to do that race again, so I can kick him again.”
When a reporter asked directly at the press conference that followed, “Did you get real injuries or did you race?” “Next question,” Johnson replied curtly. So, somehow, we may not know for sure whether it’s a legitimate infection or not. This is good, though. We all have a pretty good idea of what happened on that track 25 years ago today. Just like we found out who was really the fastest man in the world in 1996.