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Thursday, September 21, 2000

End near for Canuck sprint duo

  SYDNEY -- There's an old saying in track and field: The older they get, the faster they ain't.

 Okay, I might have just made that up, but the point is, Canadian sprinters Donovan Bailey and Bruny Surin are not getting any younger or faster. Barring a miracle, they will not challenge for a medal in the 100-metre final Saturday (5:20 a.m.).

 Yes, Canada's glory days in world track are over. But let's count our blessings. This time it won't end with a drug scandal and the establishment of a federation commission into the use of banned substances -- at least we hope it won't.

 This is not a personal attack against the fellas. Surin is a great guy and Bailey is, well, interesting and often personable. But they've lost it. Their best days are well in the past.

 That's not a criticism, it's a fact of life.

 Bailey, who shocked the world at the 1996 Atlanta Games by winning the 100-metre gold in a world-record 9.84 seconds, might still be a challenger today if not for a series of injuries suffered in the past two years. First he ruptured his Achilles tendon in 1998. Then he injured his hamstring this past June.

 On top of that, the outspoken sprinter has been sneezing, wheezing, hacking and coughing this week.

 Surin may sneak into the final, but the Montreal sprinter is clearly nowhere close to top form. Like Bailey, Surin is attempting to overcome a hamstring pull, which he suffered at the Canadian championships in Victoria last month.

 The Haitian-born athlete had a career year last season, crossing the finish line at the world championships in a personal-best 9.84 seconds. But he hasn't performed anywhere near that level this season. His best time this summer was a pedestrian 10.08.

 Surin is 33 and Bailey 32. Both plan to stick around for next year's world championships, mostly because they will be in Edmonton. But we won't see any major breakthroughs from either at these Games.

 There are those who believe Bailey and Surin might be playing possum, purposely holding back to confuse the opposition. It has happened before. Sprinting is a funny game, filled with egotistical, high-maintenance athletes. American star Maurice Greene calls himself "the phenomenon." Mind games abound. Still, if the two Canucks are holding back, they have fooled a lot of people.

 Perhaps with the exception of Sports Illustrated, which picked Surin to finish second in the 100 final, most insiders figure Bailey and Surin are fading quickly. Even Surin was surprised by SI's prediction.

 The overwhelming favourite is Greene, the world champion and world record-holder at 9.79 seconds. Only 26, Greene is just hitting his prime. He is a power runner with an incredible start and acceleration stage.

 In fact, the 100 could end up being a clean sweep for HSI. That's not a country, it's a club -- Handling Speed Intelligently -- operated out of Los Angeles by coach John Smith.

 It's conceivable that Greene and his clubmates, Trinidad and Tobago's Ato Boldon, a double bronze medallist from the 1996 Atlanta Games in the 100 and 200, and American Jon Drummond, who ran a career-best 9.96 this season, could all be on the podium. The trio is ranked 1-2-3 in the world this season.

 It has been a weird year on the international track circuit. Inclement weather in Europe accounted for inconsistent times by all the top performers on the Golden League circuit. Even Greene lost four times. But there have been a few surprises and that could be the story in the 100.

 Nigeria's Francis Obikwelu, a double gold medallist in the sprints at the 1996 world junior championships, is rounding into form at the senior level, recording a 9.97 this season at age 21. A new crop of British runners also is strong. Darren Campbell, 27, led the British 4x100-metre relay squad to a silver medal last year at the worlds.

 Bailey is ranked seventh this year, based on his one sub-10 -second early this season. Observers at that race felt the Canadian benefitted from a flyer, or undetected start.

 Surin is ranked way back in 22nd. Yesterday he proclaimed himself at 95% health.

 That's fine, but he is still race rusty.

 To use another old saying, it's time to turn out the lights.