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Friday, September 15, 2000

Bailey seeking 'the impossible'

SYDNEY -- Four years after the glory, the most recognizable face on the Canadian Olympic team sits in front of a television set in Runaway Bay, far from the stadium, watching another Olympics begin with song and dance and ceremony.

For Donovan Bailey, there is no ceremony, only questions and intrigue.

The gold medals of Atlanta and the world-record run seem a lifetime and one serious injury ago. The pictures of Bailey, with his eyes so wide, his jaw churning, his face so very expressive, his smile so engaging, seem like pictures from a distant past.

Today, the Games of the XXVII Olympiad begin in earnest, but there are no expectations of any kind of Bailey, the one-time world's fastest man. There is only wonder.

Does he have anything left?

Is there another race left in his 32-year-old body?

Is there one last shock for an athlete who lives to shock the world?

"I know I can still run," Bailey said in an interview. "It's just a matter of working out problems."

He can run, but can he win? "It's the only reason I'm here."

There are 311 athletes representing Canada and many of them marched in the electric opening ceremonies Friday night.

Most of their faces you will not know. Most of their names you will not recognize.

This is what happens at every Olympic Games, the stars and the stories emerge. You will be touched and pulled and drawn by people you didn't care about before, by sports you never thought mattered.

Caroline Brunet, the publicity-shy kayak champion, carried the Canadian flag Friday night -- suddenly we become a kayak nation. She is the best hope for medals here.

Not far behind her is Troy Amos Ross, the boxer from Brampton, who can also win light-heavyweight gold. And maybe Alison Sydor, the mountain biker, can win the highest medal here.

But there is no real face to this Canadian team, not the way Donovan Bailey was the face of Atlanta, not the way he still comes to these Games -- along with Michael Johnson and the Williams sisters of tennis fame, as the one of the most recognizable world athletes at the Olympics.

But a world watching on television Friday night witnessed what the track world has seen all season: Bailey was a no-show.

To understand what it is to win the 100 metres at the Olympic Games is to understand why the championship is so revered. The field is 120 sprinters strong. The heats are gruelling and competitive. "One mistake," said Bailey, "and it can be over quickly. You don't want to make that mistake at the wrong time."

Not all Olympic medals are created equal. They may look the same but some are more valued than others. In the heavyweight boxing division, where Toronto's Mark Simmons competes, there are 16 contestants. Four of them will be awarded medals. In the 100 metres, it isn't one out of four, it's one out of 40.

"That's why you have to look at every sport and every athlete differently," said Diane Jones Konihowski, the former world-class athlete who is chef-de-mission for the Canadian team here.

"For one athlete, gold may be everything, for another, a top-eight finish may be the absolute pinnacle."

As team leader, Jones Konihowski has done something that is foreign to Canadian sport. She is making no predictions. She is targetting no one to win medals.

"I've been there as an athlete," she said. "They put incredible pressure on themselves. In '76 in Montreal there was huge pressure on me and I blew it."

No one is putting any pressure on Donovan Bailey to win here. In fact, almost no one believes it to be possible. And maybe, that's the best thing for him, playing the longshot.

The best way to inspire Bailey in the past was to tell him he can't. He loves to hear it. He lives to respond.

He won a world championship in Sweden in 1995 when hardly anyone knew his name.

He won gold in the 100 metres and then repeated it in the relay event at the Atlanta Olympics when the double was believed impossible.

And then came the ruptured tendon on a basketball court two years ago. "You told me I'd never run again," Bailey reminded me a while back. "I like to do the impossible."

The impossible would be contending here, but there is something inside Bailey that makes you believe he has a chance. Something other athletes don't have. A sense of timing. A stage presence. Maybe it's over and maybe it isn't. The Games begin with all kinds of intrigue.