July 28, 1996

Simply the best

Toronto Sun
ATLANTA -- The title is unlike any other in sport, transcending the games and leaving its onlookers breathless.
  The world's fastest human.
  That's what Donovan Bailey is now.
  Not just the Olympic champion. Not just the gold medallist from Canada. Not just the winner of the marquee event at the Summer Olympics.
  The world's fastest human.
  The fastest man ever, with an asterisk.
  Donovan Bailey stood by the starting blocks expressionless, slowly loosening up, minus his usual smile. He walked around easily while Dennis Mitchell strutted boldly, while Ato Boldon flexed his muscles, while Linford Christie stared at anyone who would stare back and while Frankie Fredericks seemed so calm, so certain of victory.
  Bailey stood by the starting blocks and then the world and the track unfolded in his favor. There was one false start. And another false start. And a third false start.
  And then Christie, the defending Olympic champ, was asked to leave the race. He was asked, but he refused. Only after the referee, John Chaplin, walked on to the track did an angry Christie depart.
  By then, Boldon was twitching. By then, Mitchell looked beat. By then, it was a two-man race between Bailey and Fredericks.
  "All those false starts played right into Donovan's hands,'' said his coach, Dan Pfaff. "Good starters struggle when there's a lot of false starts. They become unnerved and it was perfect for Donovan. We didn't have enough time to give him a full warmup run. This gave him the kind of time he needed."
  There is something almost inexplicable about Donovan Bailey. How he runs so fast and starts so slow. Maybe it's because, as a sprinting nation, we've been honed on Ben Johnson, who burst like a race car out of the blocks. Bailey comes out of the blocks like a child learning to walk for the very first time, his arms and legs flailing, not necessarily in the same direction.
  But once it happens, once he reaches stride, it's over. That's how it went last night at the Olympic Stadium in a race that was supposed to begin at 9 p.m. sharp and was almost 20 minutes -- and three false starts -- late.
  "If you watched him, after every false start he got better,'' said Andy McInnis, the national track team coach. "With Donovan, it's not how quick he gets out of the blocks. It's how it sets up the rest of his race.
  "You know he has the acceleration. A lot of people think if you get a good start you win. It doesn't always work that way.''
  Boldon of Trinidad, Tobago, New York and UCLA started first and fastest. But he left the track in tears, unable to control himself emotionally.
  "I put everything into that race,'' said Boldon, who ran third in a time of 9.90. Fredericks was second in 9.89. The world record, which belonged by default to American Leroy Burrell, disappeared when Bailey was clocked in 9.84.
  The fastest any human has run is 9.79. That was Ben Johnson. The record was taken away after Johnson's disqualification in Seoul. It is still, as Johnson is apt to say, the fastest anyone has ever been.
  But none of that matters to Bailey today, because the record book says no one has run faster.
  He accomplished it when it mattered most, just as Johnson did on two occasions. Before all the turmoil, that's what made Johnson so special. It now is what distinguishes Bailey from the rest of the great sprinters of the world.
  He won last night on the track of the Olympic Stadium, on a cool night, when finally there was something to take some attention away from the bombing in Atlanta earlier that morning.
  He won, as he did last year in Goteborg, when almost out of nowhere he became the world champion.
  As he walked to the medal podium last night, after exchanging a small Canadian flag for a larger version, Bailey closed his eyes and took in this moment. His first real, international, fastest on the planet, national hero, moment.
  He closed his eyes and seemed at peace. And as the national anthem played, the anthem of one of the two countries he calls home, his lips moved slowly. He stood on guard for thee.
  Donovan Bailey then closed his eyes again, raised his right arm in the air and held his gold medal close to his lips.
  It is his Olympic gold medal, with a subtitle:
  The world's fastest human.