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Pulling a Fast One
Tim Layden
June 09, 1997
The long-awaited match race between Michael Johnson and Donovan Bailey turned into a travesty, further wounding an ailing sport
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June 09, 1997

Pulling A Fast One

The long-awaited match race between Michael Johnson and Donovan Bailey turned into a travesty, further wounding an ailing sport

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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 smalltime 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 held. 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 4 x 100 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.

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