Twenty years ago today, the argument over the world’s fastest person would be settled once and for all with the meeting of Olympic sprint champions Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson at the hybrid distance of 150m. Robert O’Shea outlines what happened.
“HE didn’t pull up at all — he’s just a chicken.”
It wasn’t the first time Michael Johnson had been called a chicken, though it usually referred to his running posture. The American used to eat up track with a stiff-looking straight-back technique and short piston stride. As a child, his friends laughed at him for running “funny”. He laughed back.
Now though the jibe came from Donovan Bailey, the reigning 100m Olympic champion, via his rearview mirror. Johnson lay on the track 50 metres behind, clutching his quadriceps.
On a compromised track in Toronto, Bailey could now claim he was fleetest man on the planet. That he could do so without much dignity had more to do with comments made after his world-record breaking win at the Atlanta Games the year before than anything else.
American hopes had been dashed in the 100 metres on home soil by Bailey, compounding the US failure to win the blue riband four years earlier in Barcelona. Bailey and his team of Canadians compounded this by beating the Americans in the 4x100-metre relay. His Atlanta accomplishments provided a balm too for Canadians embarrassed by Ben Johnson’s Seoul disgrace in 1988.
However, the US media downplayed Bailey’s achievements, preferring to big up Michael Johnson’s 200m (in which he smashed the world record while wearing golden boots) and 400m golds. It irked the Canadian. Johnson gratefully accepted the moniker of ‘fastest man in the world’, usually reserved for the 100m champion.
With rancour came opportunity. There was now mainstream interest in the disputed “fastest in the world” claim and the idea for a 150-metre showdown to settle the issue was soon tabled. Where there’s a will, there’s a promoter, and it was agreed that a head to head would take place in the Skydome in Toronto on June 1, 1997.
Frankie Fredericks, who was the four-time Olympic-silver medallist at 100 and 200 metres, voiced his displeasure at not being invited (he would fail to show for a 150-metre race in Cardiff the night before, at which he had promised to lay down a swift marker that neither Bailey nor Johnson would match.) Verbal sparring that is normally the preserve of the fight game went back and forth and though the promotion began to take on the feel of a circus, there was genuine interest in who would prevail. However, one last hitch remained with promotional and financial problems threatening to derail the event before a wealthy Toronto entrepreneur stepped in to ensure it took place.
Two days before the race, Bailey examined the track in SkyDome and was shocked at its configuration, specifically the tight radius of the turn. He complained that the turn should emulate the wider curve of the outer lanes 7 and 8 on a standard eight-lane track, not the tighter turns of the middle lanes 3 and 4.
Bailey and his agent, the former Irish middle distance runner Ray Flynn (whose national mile record is 35 years old on July 7), also claimed the first 85 metres of the track were on the curve instead of 75 metres as promised. The Canadian decided to run, but not before issuing a statement hours before the race, blasting the organisers for “deceitfulness“, “egregious miscarriage of the competitive spirit of this competition” and warning he would be running the race “under mental duress”.
Despite poor American TV viewing figures, 30,000 paying spectators turned up to watch. The Toronto Skydome race failed to live up to expectations. Bailey was ahead of Johnson on the turn, where it had been assumed Johnson would have the advantage. Johnson glanced over at the man he was trailing and pulled up at the 110-metre mark, grabbing his thigh. Before crossing the line, Bailey turned around to wave Johnson on to finish, losing more in victory than Johnson did in defeat as he assailed his opponent straight away.
“There was never any doubt in my mind I was the fastest man on the planet and this just proved it,” Bailey claimed. “They said I couldn’t run a corner, but I always said this is exposing Michael Johnson and the weaknesses in his race. This is just preparation, we’re gonna a run a couple of twos (200 metres) this year and I plan on meeting him in his event.
“There was never any doubt in my mind I was the fastest man. He didn’t pull up [with an injury], he’s a chicken.”
This wasn’t just adrenaline talking. Later at the press conference, a calmer but equally acerbic Bailey claimed: “It’s obvious the gap was going to get bigger and my butt was going to get smaller and smaller as I pulled away. He knew he was going to get hammered after the first 30 metres, so he knew he had to pull up.”
Johnson, when asked if Bailey was now the world’s fastest man, responded evasively: “Even if I had won it, and I feel confident that I could have, some people would’ve said that. Everyone is always entitled to their opinion and, you know, I can’t do anything about that.”
Asked to comment on the “chicken” remark, Johnson said: “That’s saying a lot about what kind of person he is. I’m going to show you what kind of person I am. I’m not going to address that.”
Due to the injury sustained in Toronto, Johnson was unable to compete in the 1997 US Track and Field Championships a few weeks later and didn’t qualify for the World Championships later that summer in Athens. However, to allow him to compete and avoid losing star appeal of the double world record holder, the IAAF shifted the goalposts to permit a bye to defending champions.
In Athens, Johnson pulled out of competing in the 200 metres, relinquishing his title to Ato Boldon, but defended his world title in the 400. Bailey finished second in the 100m to the man who would usurp him as the fastest man in the world, America’s Maurice Greene.
Bailey had covered the 150 metres in Toronto in 14.99. He and Johnson never met on the track again.
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