The Sunday Magazine

'Listen, respect and understand': Donovan Bailey on how Canada's conversation about racism has evolved

Looking back 25 years, Donovan Bailey still fixates on the mistakes he made on the track. But there is one thing from 1996 that he wouldn't change: how he spoke out about racism in Canada. 

Bailey's Olympic gold wins in 1996 were almost overshadowed by comments he made on racism at the time

Canada's Donovan Bailey celebrates after setting a world record to win gold in the men's 100m at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. (Ed Reinke/The Associated Press)

Looking back 25 years, Donovan Bailey still fixates on the mistakes he made on the track. But there is one thing from 1996 that he wouldn't change: how he spoke out about racism in Canada. 

Bailey came into the Atlanta Olympics feeling the weight of a nation, and a sport, looking for redemption after the 1988 Seoul Games — when Canadian Ben Johnson won gold and set a new world record for the 100-metre sprint, only to be stripped of his medal days later after he tested positive for banned steroids. 

And just days ahead of Bailey's own gold medal-winning, world-record breaking 9.84 run in the 100-metre sprint, another cloud was gathering.

In a Sports Illustrated article published in the lead up to the marquee event, Bailey questioned if the way the nation quickly turned on Johnson was partly a function of his race and his background as a Jamaican immigrant. 

"We know it exists," he said when asked about racism in Canada. "People who don't appear to be Canadian don't get the same treatment," he explained, referring to people of colour.

"Will Canadians love a Black athlete?" he went on to say. "I hope so."

Asked today about what motivated his comments at the time, Bailey said he was simply speaking the truth. 

"My responsibility 25 years ago was to be honest. And that's exactly where I sit today," he told The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay.

"It was not popular to suggest that ... there was racism that exists here [in Canada]," he said. "But it was honest."

Left to right: Donovan Bailey of Canada, Frankie Fredericks of Namibia, Ato Boldon of Trinidad cross the finish line after the men's Olympic 100m race at the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta on July 27, 1996. Bailey finished in world record time of 9.84 seconds. (AFP via Getty Images)

He acknowledged there was some blowback at the time, but added that the same conversations are still happening 25 years later, albeit with a more open society. 

"The difference is that there are people listening and there's dialogue," he said, pointing to the unfortunate reality that it took events like the murder of George Floyd to serve as a catalyst for that dialogue to open up. 

"I always strive to be an honest person because I don't ever want to not fall on the right side of history," he told Chattopadhyay. 

WATCH: Donovan Bailey on 25 years since he called out Canadian racism ahead of his gold medal win.

We're having a conversation now

The Sunday Magazine

2 months ago
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Donovan Bailey on 25 years since he called out Canadian racism ahead of his gold medal win. 2:07

Looking back, Bailey said society needs to carve out space to truly listen and work to understand one another. 

"When someone is talking about their journey or talking about a journey of people that are like them … it's very relative and important to just listen, respect and understand."

Quitting his day job

By the time he reached the Olympic Games, Bailey was confident he could win and set records. But the journey to that moment began, in large part, during a conversation with his coach Dan Pfaff.

"He sat me down one day and said that any time I want to get serious, I could be the fastest man in the world," Bailey said. "And I'm like, OK, I guess I need to get serious."

WATCH: Bailey on the coach that helped him become the fastest man in the world.

'No shortcut here, just hard work, man'

The Sunday Magazine

2 months ago
1:44
Donovan Bailey on the coach that helped him become the fastest man in the world. 1:44

Before he started training with Pfaff, Bailey had started a career in marketing and real estate, bought a house and a car — and was feeling burnt out. 

"I did not like being inside of an office space in my early 20s. I love being outside. I love the sunshine. Like it kind of freed me," he said. 

Besides, he added, he had been a leading sprinter in his youth, and he was seeing sprinters he used to beat back then make their way in the sport. 

So in March 1994 he shifted his focus from business to make running his full-time job. And a little over two years later he was named the Fastest Man in the World.

Could have run faster

Bailey still hears from fans who named children or pets after him, or who left wedding ceremonies and funerals to watch the race on July 27, 1996. 

"Even to this day, I'm reminded every single day of the incredible times that I shared an incredible sporting moment with all sporting fans around the world, but especially Canadians."

Though Bailey has seen the tape "a million times," every time he watches he breaks down how he could have perfected his performance. 

"That's what athletes do," he said. "I'm still that guy to point out the mistakes that I made. And had I done what I should have done, how much faster I would have ran."

But that doesn't mean he's bitter about the result.

"I am quite happy with what happened."

Send your memory of watching Donovan Bailey win the gold medal for the 100 metre sprint to sunday@cbc.ca

'Always been loved'

Revisiting the question he asked before his gold medal-winning performance — Will Canadians love a Black athlete? — Bailey says he's heard a resounding "yes" over the last 25 years.

"I've always been loved," he said.

"But yes, I was never doing sports for the love. I was doing sports because I had a God-given gift. But I also want to use my platform for something good," he said. 

Bailey describes himself now as a businessman, father and philanthropist.

"I get up every day and I make sure that whatever it is I do, it brings value to me, to my family or to the world." 

He's passionate about better treatment and funding for Canadian athletes. His latest initiative is Pass The Baton, a fundraiser for youth charities and celebration of his 100-metre gold and his gold-medal winning 4x100-metre relay team. 

A different Games experience amid pandemic

Although local opposition to the Tokyo Olympics is still fierce amidst a fourth wave of COVID-19 in the country, organizers are forging ahead.

Bailey is confident that organizers are doing everything necessary to keep the reduced number of live spectators as safe as possible, explaining that other sporting events have laid the groundwork for operating during a pandemic.

He added that the financial pressures to go ahead with the Games were likely too large to ignore.

The stands, however, will be mostly empty — and Bailey says the athletes will miss the energy an audience brings to the event.

"The audience has always been our sixth man," he said. "That electricity when you walk into a stadium and that pin drops, I mean, that's something that you can never, ever, ever, ever replicate."

That said, he knows every athlete is going in with a mind on winning gold — and he's rooting for Team Canada. 

"I hope to see some with the Canadian flags flying on top (of the podium) and listening to the national anthem. So I'm looking forward to it."


Produced and written by Sarah-Joyce Battersby. 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

 

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