This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.
You can blame Bob Costas for all of this.
Long before “hot take” entered the lexicon, the normally astute NBC broadcaster dropped a scorcher when comparing the two best sprinters at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. If, Costas proposed, you take the world record 19.32 seconds that American Michael Johnson ran in the men’s 200 meters and cut it in half, that’s 9.66 — considerably faster than the world record 9.84 that Canadian Donovan Bailey laid down to win the 100m . Ergo, doesn’t that make Johnson the World’s Fastest Man?
All due respect to Bob, but that’s not how this works. For one, the unofficial WFM title had always gone to the winner of the 100m. And also, a 200m athlete begins the second half of their race with a running “start.” So, no, you can’t just divide the time in half. Bailey reacted to Costas’ voodoo math a little more bluntly, dismissing it as “a person who knew nothing about track talking about it with a lot of people listening.”
No one really took Costas’ calculation seriously, but still, a seed was planted. Who was actually faster? Was it Johnson, who’d made history in Atlanta by becoming the first (and still only) man to win gold in both the 200m and 400m at the same Olympics? Or Bailey, who’d won the Games’ marquee event in world-record time before anchoring Canada to gold in the 4x100m relay? Predictably, someone’s answer to that question depended a lot on the passport in their pocket. Most Americans would probably go with Johnson, while the vast majority of Canadians backed Bailey — and seemed insulted that anyone would dare suggest otherwise.
WATCH | CBC Sports’ Rob Pizzo takes you behind the scenes of Bailey vs Johnson:
To be fair to those Americans and to Costas, there was a kernel of truth to his galaxy-brain theory about Johnson. Putting our Canadian pride aside, the man with the golden shoes was objectively the star of the Atlanta Games. Competing on home soil, he pulled off the historic men’s 200-400 double while setting a world record in the former and an Olympic record in the latter. That’s a hell of a story. Yes, Bailey’s victory was a postage-stamp moment here in Canada — one of the greatest athletic achievements in the history of the country. But, if we’re being honest, Atlanta ’96 was the Michael Johnson Olympics.
Of course, that did nothing to cool the Bailey vs. Johnson debate in the wake of those games. The subjects even added fuel to the fire, with Bailey saying “the American media was trying to make [Johnson] a superstar. But there’s two glamor events in the Olympics, the 100 meters and the 4×100 relay, and we Canadians smoked them in both.” Later, CBC Sports broadcaster Brian Williams asked Johnson point blank, “Michael, who’s the fastest man in the world?” Johnson replied “I am.”
Enticed by a promoter’s offer of a $500,000 appearance fee 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 150m match race on June 1, 1997 at what was then known as the SkyDome in Toronto. Then the gamesmanship really began.
The event nearly fell apart at the last minute when, thinking he’d negotiated a track with a 50-metre curve to start followed by a 100-metre straightaway, Bailey showed up to find the layout was 75m/75m. Donovan nearly bailed at that point before agreeing to go ahead with the race. But he was careful to hedge against a potential defeat by stating publicly that he would be running “under duress.”
Meanwhile, European track fans and sportocrats turned up their noses at all those gauche North Americans lapping up this unsanctioned silliness. “This is… more like something out of a circus,” sniffed the Italian president of track’s world governing body. “And we’re not interested in it.”
But, man, Canadians were ever interested. Some 30,000 spectators filed into the massive baseball/football stadium, and 2.5 million people watched the CBC’s live broadcast of what felt like a heavyweight title fight. You could just sense the Euros’ disapproval when the boisterous crowd wouldn’t quiet down as expected for the start.
WATCH | Bailey vs. Johnson, 150-meter showdown in 1997:
When the gun went off (the runners seemed to hear it just fine), Bailey electrified the fans by quickly overtaking Johnson, who began a few steps ahead on the staggered start. The Canadian hit the straightaway with a growing lead, at which point Johnson suddenly pulled up, signaling a (dubious) leg injury. This stunning turn of events was actually anticipated by CBC Sports’ TV producers. Understanding the enormous (and enormously fragile) egos of the two men racing, they had their cameras rehearse shooting a pull-up. Looking back, between that possibility and Bailey’s laying the groundwork for blaming the track if he lost, this much should have been clear: neither guy was ever going to lose this race fair and square.
After Bailey crossed the line victorious (in 14.99 seconds, by the way), the still-jacked-up Canadian hero tore into his rival in a legendary post-race interview with CBC Sports’ Mark Lee. “He didn’t pull up at all. He’s just a chicken. He’s afraid to lose,” Bailey spat. “I think what he should do, we should run this race over again, so I can kick his ass one more time.”
When asked straight-up by a reporter at the ensuing press conference, “Were you genuinely injured or did you throw the race?” Johnson replied with a terse “Next question.” So, in a way, we may never know for certain whether it was a legit injury or not. That’s alright, though. We all have a pretty good idea of what happened on that track 25 years ago today. Just like we knew who the world’s fastest man really was in ’96.