CBC Sports’ Oral Histories will take you behind the scenes of some of the biggest, most spectacular moments in Canadian sports history and into the minds of the athletes and people involved.
In this instalment, we take you back to the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, where Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey ran the 100-metre final in a time of 9.84 seconds, becoming an Olympic champion — and the fastest man in the world.
Seventeen days before the men’s 100-metre final at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Donovan Bailey was as confident as ever – and broken.
The Canadian sprinter and reigning world champion had defeated defending Olympic champion Linford Christie in a photo finish on July 10 in Nice, France, but tore all three adductor muscles on the inside of the thigh when he over-strided at 95 metres.
Bailey returned to his training base in Texas and went into the care of his chiropractor and soft tissue specialist, Dr. Mark Lindsay.
Dan Pfaff, Donovan Bailey’s coach: The first seven days he was in the physiotherapy room 24 hours a day. To be honest, the first thought was, ‘can we get him to run at least the first round [of four in Atlanta]?’
Normally, you would want 28 days to recover [from the injury] and we had 10. It’s not like hockey where you can tape it, go 80 per cent and still be effective. If this wasn’t the Olympics, we wouldn’t have even let him get on the plane.
We knew he was one bad stride away from it all being over. Dr. Lindsay was a key stakeholder in Donovan’s success. Without his work and expertise, it would never have happened.
Donovan Bailey: It probably had nothing to do with my injury, but [rather] my mental preparation and the fact I was on a mission since I had started track that nothing was going to get in my way.
A bombing at Centennial Olympic Park in the early morning hours before the 100 final killed one person and threatened to postpone the July 27 race, but the event went ahead as scheduled before a crowd of 85,000 at Centennial Olympic Stadium.
Steve Buffery, reporter with the Toronto Sun: We [writers] were up all night because of the bombing. I got two or three hours sleep, then had to go to the hospital to get updates [on injured people].
From there, I went to the track. There was a lot of tension in the air between what had happened at Centennial Olympic Park and the normal tension of a 100-metre final at an Olympic Games, which is almost like a heavyweight title fight.
Normally, you’d see all the guys in the press box having fun but I remember the whole place seemed kind of quiet.
Pfaff: Up to, maybe, two hours before the semifinal [on the day of the final] nobody was really sure what was going to happen. Donovan had already run two rounds. Injuries [like an adductor] get stiffer and more sore the more time [off] you have.
I was really concerned if we got a day or two off [after the bombing] could he even rally to run [the semifinal]?
Glenroy Gilbert, Bailey’s Team Canada relay teammate: The game plan was to do the bare minimum to get a good lane for the final. Donovan didn’t want to be the guy that runs 9.85 [seconds] in a semi and has to come back and have to go faster in the final.
It was a strategic move that lulled his competitors into a false sense of security and played out perfectly.
Steve Ovett, CBC Sports race analyst: We just wanted to see what Donovan was like [health-wise] as he got into the heats. He had the heats and semifinal to get back into the rhythm he needed to be in the final.
Buffery: Donovan had a knack for bringing it on when he needed it. The Canadian and American media really seemed to focus on Bailey.
Gilbert: Frankie Fredericks and Ato Boldon were top of mind for everybody. People were clinging to this hope that we were going to see something special, a flash of the old Linford Christie.
Pfaff: Frankie and Ato had been the favourites for podium finishes. Linford had been there and done it [as reigning Olympic champion] and experience is huge in an Olympic final. [American] Dennis Mitchell was a wild card and could be dangerous.
Dr. Lindsay and I were able to get underneath [the stadium] and do some precise, targeted therapeutic intervention and preventative [treatment with Donovan] before the final. We had to keep certain [body] structures loose and other structures highly activated. Because of the stress of the race, the pressure and the bombing, Mark did a lot of acupuncture trying to keep chemistry balanced.
There was a delay of 10 minutes and 10 seconds from the time Donovan Bailey was introduced for the final to when the race started after Linford Christie had two false starts, was disqualified and wouldn’t leave the track, while Ato Boldon also false-started.
Bailey: I was just trying to remain patient. Dan [Pfaff] said “every time you get back to the [starting] blocks remember you need to reload.”
Pfaff: Interruptions, delays, confusion and chaos was always a part of our practice but not a lot of athletes or coaches prepare for contingencies. If you noticed, Donovan sat on the lane marker behind the starting blocks and he would fidget with his earlobe. We fit an acupuncture tack in his earlobe that he would stimulate to regulate arousal. We had breathing techniques and he was doing very pronounced breathing. A lot of it was controlling emotions so he could focus on the task that he had at hand.
Ovett: You can get distracted easily in an Olympic final and the nerves can take over. It was one of the races that had everything before the actual race itself. It had all the drama you could expect from an Olympics and that made it such a great final. People were saying, “Were the false starts deliberate?” Why did Boldon false start? Was he trying to get Christie to make two false starts? Was he trying to get the rest of the field to do the same? It got even tense for us [commentators] to stay calm.
Buffery: I remember thinking, if this delay is going to help anybody, it’s Donovan. More than anyone else in that race, I don’t think he relied on a fast start and the other guys would be slightly more tentative [after each false start]. With Donovan’s mental toughness, I think it played into his hands.
Ovett: A good start was perhaps Donovan’s Achilles heel. He’s a very big lad and had that long, loping stride so it took a long time to get those legs moving, but his pickup was tremendous.
Gilbert: The way Dan [Pfaff] had us using the starting blocks was not to be first out of them but distribute power and energy. I was a little concerned when Donovan got out of the blocks but I also know the way Dan taught us over the years to not panic, rely on your technique, stay focused, build your speed, so Donovan was still building.
Bailey: I remember saying to myself, probably on the fourth step, to get back in my acceleration and normal phase. I kind of went side to side in the lane and needed to remind myself to relax. It was definitely one of the worse starts of my life, especially at that level. I didn’t want to false start. But I wasn’t worried because I knew that my top speed was faster than [all of my competitors].
Pfaff: It was probably a dead heat for last out of the blocks but I’ve seen way worse [starts from Donovan]. I’ve seen him put his hand on the ground and step almost in another guy’s lane. I saw where Donovan was after 30 metres, probably fifth place, so we were in business because I knew if he would touch [Fredericks and Boldon] at 50 [metres] they were going to have to do something special to hold him off.
Buffery: At 60, 70 metres I thought this is still anybody’s race.
Pfaff: I knew he was [going to be] on the podium at 70, unless he blew up or took that wrong step. One really stupid step and it was game over. Frankie and Ato made mistakes mechanically around the 70- to 80-metre mark that opened the door for Donovan. They were starting to overpush and that causes you to decelerate faster and sooner.
Buffery: After 80 metres, you could see the power and that he was going to hold it longer than anybody. You’re kind of used to Donovan and slow starts but I remember thinking out of the blocks … I don’t know if he’s going to do it this time.
Gilbert: Ato and Frankie were maxing out at 60 metres whereas Donovan is still amping up, and you see that in the race. That’s why he blows by them so easily at about 85 metres. He is still generating speed and not tightening up.
Ovett: When Donovan suddenly inched ahead of everybody in the last 30 metres, it was a breathtaking moment. I knew he had it because no one else was going to beat him over that last 20, 30 metres. He was too strong and absolutely flying.
Bailey: The first 30 metres was absolutely terrible, the middle 40 was probably the greatest middle 40 ever and the last 30 was me just trying to relax and not decelerate any faster than I was. In trying not to panic and not breathing as well as I should have been, my diaphragm wasn’t high enough and I got my legs out in front of me too far. I was over-striding.
Bailey crossed the finish line first in a world-record time of 9.84 seconds, shattering Leroy Burrell’s mark of 9.85, set on June 7, 1994. He beat Fredericks by 5-100ths of a second and Boldon by 6-100ths to become the second Canadian to win Olympic gold in the 100 after Vancouver’s Percy Williams at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam.
Bailey: I was never going to lose the race. I was the reigning world champion and my confidence was at a different level. Dan [Pfaff], myself and Dr. Mark Lindsay, we had prepared probably better than any athlete before me. My top speed, or race formula, is the exact same you saw with [current world-record holder] Usain Bolt.
I was sixth [of seven] out of the blocks and [Fredericks and Boldon] were already two metres up on me and I beat them by a metre and a half.
Ovett: As a world champion to come back and win the Olympics you can’t ask for more than that. The quality of the field was superb and unmatched, really, in following Olympics. You could have picked any one guy to win. It was dramatic beyond belief.
One of the many images people remember from the 100 final in Atlanta is Bailey’s wide, open-mouthed yell while turning to his right as he crossed the line.
Bailey: There had been some frustrations with the hierarchy in the sport – not being selected for teams and I was by far the best sprinter [for Canada]. I promised one of the coaches in 1994 that I would be on a campaign to be the very best in the world. It was me attaining a goal I set out to do. I saw the clock and it said 9.8. I didn’t make out the four. Maybe I was trying to stick it to the very people that did not support or believe [in] me who were supposed to be helping me along the way.
I ran a bad race and still became the fastest man in the history of the world. I hope it put in perspective, among my teammates and a lot of athletes watching, that you could become the greatest sprinter in the history of the world. And that you could achieve all goals if you don’t take shortcuts, have the right coach, the right environment, the right support system.
Gilbert: For Canadians, it signified we were capable of competing with the best people in the world. I think it was a turning point for Canadian track and field in the sense that Canadians can be on the podium and we should expect to be on the podium because we’re training in the right environment and have the right coaching and talent. That’s the mentality you’re seeing today.
Millions of Canadians celebrated Bailey’s victory that came eight years after Ben Johnson tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol at the Seoul Olympics and was subsequently stripped of his gold medal.
Bailey: At no point of my existence has there ever been and should have been an affiliation with Ben Johnson. That’s been part of the problem with the narrative of my entire career. Ben was a non-track story in 1989.
Pfaff: Initially, people were enthusiastic, proud and embraced the moment [of Donovan’s victory]. The cynicism since the Ben Johnson scandal has never really left the sport. Donovan was still getting questions about it three years after the [Atlanta] Olympics.
Buffery: Every time we covered a track meet, you were always waiting for the positive test and rumours. In Atlanta, that seemed to have subsided a little bit. Charlie Francis [who was Johnson’s coach] thought everybody was dirty.
I remember asking him about Donovan years later and he said, “I don’t think so.” Charlie was convinced Donovan was probably clean, which to me was the biggest vote of confidence you could get.
Buffery: Donovan had proved what we always thought about the guy, that he was a big-race guy. There was never any worry whether he was going to step up to the challenge. He did it at the world championships [in 1995] and there was a sense leading up to the Olympics he would rise to the occasion, and he did.
There was a lot weighing on him as defending world champion but he never backed down and was tough as nails.