Bailey still a champ in defeat
SYDNEY -- He pulled at the bright red Canadian straps on his shoulders, uncomfortably shuffled his feet and, several times, he bit on his lip to stop himself from crying.
In stark and sudden Olympic defeat, Donovan Bailey seemed imminently more human than he ever seemed in victory.
He stood on a cold and dreary Sydney night, below the stands of the grand Olympic Stadium, trying to comprehend the then and the now. Once, as gold medalist and the world's fastest man. Last night, as an Olympic also-ran.
"This is it,'' said Bailey, trembling from the temperature and his runaway emotions. "It's not how it was supposed to be. I was the king ... I've been captain of the ship since '94 ... I can't think about the past right now. I can't think that way. I can't reflect on what's been done and what's been said and what people say to me. But right now, it's not something I can talk about.
"It hurts for me, for this. It hurts, man.''
He stood and talked for as long as I've ever seen him stand and talk, honestly, uncomfortably and reflectively. Gone on this miserable night was the Bailey bravado, the sarcasm, the arrogance, the selfishness. All of that disappeared in defeat. At the finish line was a man and athlete, stripped almost naked, honest with himself, unable to truly explain how his body had deceived him, knowing only he had never felt this way before.
This has never been the way with Donovan Bailey, not from the time he was first left off a Commonwealth Games team in a petty bout of politics. That was never the way with Bailey, on the Swedish weekend when he became a name, shocking the world with his win at the 1995 world championships. That was never the way, when Bailey won gold in Atlanta in world record time and followed it up one week later with the anchor leg on a gold-medal-winning relay team.
There has never been a Canadian Olympian like him, so successful and so difficult to embrace, so accomplished and so enigmatic. The more he won, the harder he was to get a handle on.
In the morning yesterday, Bailey looked awkward and gangly as he barely advanced beyond the first round of the 100 metre heats. He began the second round with a false start. Then someone else false-started. And when the gun finally went off to begin the race, it was as though the shot had been fired, killing what was left of Bailey's career.
He started slowly, faded after a few metres and shut himself down about halfway through the 100 metres. He all but walked across the finish line in a time of 11.36 -- almost two seconds slower than the gold medal time of 1996 -- hugged the world record holder, Maurice Greene, and all but said goodbye to a career of athletic brilliance.
"How emotional do you feel right now?" my colleague, Steve Buffery, asked in the crowded mixed-zone area, having interviewed Bailey hundreds of times before. Bailey stopped and tried to answer but then stopped himself again. "Don't ask me that, Steve," he said. Again he bit his lip, shuffled his feet, wrestled to control the wave of emotions he was struggling with.
You learn a lot about people in defeat. Sometimes more than you ever learn in victory. Anybody can win but not everybody can lose with charm and dignity and sincerity and honesty -- the very qualities Bailey seemed to lack when he was winning medals.
"Every championships you guys ever attended, when I'm healthy, I'm usually addressing you guys at a press conference after the race," said Bailey, feeling displaced. "This is not something that is familiar to me at all.
"I don't even know what I did today. I couldn't even tell you what my body was doing ... I got in the blocks this morning knowing that I was feeling flat. I hadn't slept and I couldn't breath. I had to run. I made a commitment to do well and that's what I've tried to do every year. Up until this point, things seemed to be going all right.
"You know, I could have retired after I ruptured my Achilles, but I thought, no one's ever ran a 10.5 with a ruptured Achilles. I thought I could come back and win the Olympic Games. And to this day, I'm still sure if everything worked I was capable of winning here."
He never stopped believing, even when everyone else did. And yet he was never so much the champion as he was on this Olympic night when his game had gone and all that was left was this man I wish we had known sooner.