Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey set the world record in a 100-meter race in 1996, earning the distinction of "world's fastest man." At his peak during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, the Jamaican-born Bailey ran a record-setting, gold-medal-winning time of 9.84 seconds. With three teammates, he also captured the gold in the 4×100-meter relay. In Canada, his home since age 13, Bailey became a star, if not a national hero. The outspoken athlete gained a reputation for bluntness and bravado, often publicly ridiculing his rivals. He retained his world record until 1999, when American sprinter Maurice Greene outstripped him by 5-100ths of a second. By then Bailey had sustained a nearly careerending Achilles tendon injury; he went on to recover and return to sprinting, retiring in 2001 before his 34th birthday.
Bailey, one of five sons born in Manchester, Jamaica to George and Daisy Bailey, would wake at dawn to help tend to the family's chickens, goats, and pigs before going to school. He moved with his family to the Toronto suburb of Oakville in 1981. Here Bailey attended Queen Elizabeth Park High School, becoming a track and basketball standout. "I could have left high school and run track right away, but that wasn't what I wanted," he told Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated. "I wanted a nice house, money, fast cars. I was taught to work real hard, to work on my own."
Bailey attended Sheridan College in Oakville, playing forward for one season on the basketball team. Graduating with a degree in economics, he set out to accomplish his material goals. A self-made businessman, Bailey worked as a marketing and property consultant, and ran a business importing and exporting clothing. At 22 he bought a house in Oakville and drove a Porsche 911 convertible. But track and field still lured him, and in 1991 he began to train seriously as a sprinter.
Hones Sprinting Skills
At one of his first major competitions, the 1991 Pan-American Games, Bailey made the finals. But he still had
to prove himself. Athletics Canada, his sport's governing body, overlooked him for the 1991 world championships and the 1992 Olympics. In 1993 he made the world championships in Stuttgart, Germany; to his disappointment, however, he was dropped from the relay race. While in Stuttgart, Bailey met Dan Pfaff, a track coach at Louisiana State University. Seeing promise in Bailey, Pfaff invited the sprinter to train with him in Baton Rouge.
In March 1994 he began intensively training with Pfaff, who corrected Bailey's running form and put him on a program of sprinting, lifting weights, and better diet. Pfaff also helped the Canadian sprinter improve his attitude, which had soured after his disappointments. After three months, Bailey had pared his 100-meter sprinting time from 10.36 to 10.03 seconds. These three-tenths of a second had made a world of difference, putting Bailey into an elite class of sprinters.
Bailey had captured the attention of the track world, but still had work to do. Improving his starting techniques, he managed to trim his sprinting time by tenths and hundredths of seconds. By spring of 1995 he was running under 10 seconds, at 9.99, and by June had clocked 9.91, a Canadian record. At the world championships in Goteborg, Sweden, he captured the title with a winning time of 9.97, clinching the title of "world's fastest man."
Captures Olympic Gold
Bailey peaked as a sprinter in 1996, during the Olympic Games in Atlanta. Taking the gold medal in 100 meters, he set a world-record time of 9.84 seconds, becoming the fastest man in history. In his signature style, Bailey started at the back of the pack before over-taking his competitors in a dramatic midrace surge.
Although he became a star in Canada, Bailey did not become the fully-embraced national hero he had envisioned. Canada was still reeling from its 1988 Olympic disappointment, when Ben Johnson had captured the gold, only to forfeit it after the sprinter tested positive for steroids. Like Bailey, Johnson was a Jamaican-born Canadian, and Bailey was haunted by the media's frequent comparisons between him and the disgraced Johnson. Bailey, nonetheless, took pride in being a "clean" runner who never touched steroids or other drugs.
Bailey's next significant victory came in Toronto in 1997, when he beat American sprinter Michael Johnson (the Olympic 200- and 400-meter champion) in a one-to-one race to 150 meters. In mid-race, Johnson had clutched his thigh in pain, leaving Bailey to take the $1.5 million reward—the biggest athletic prize in history. Calling Johnson "a faker and a chicken," as Mike Rowbottom of the Independent quoted him, Bailey reveled in his win. Yet fans decried the brash sprinter's lack of sportsmanship.
Two months later, Bailey lost his world-championship title to another American, Maurice Greene. Bailey blamed his loss on his recent obsession over Johnson. "I found it was impossible to peak twice," he told Rowbottom. In 1999 Greene went on to break Bailey's world-record time, clocking 9.79 seconds in 100 meters.
Calls It Quits
Meanwhile, the Canadian sprinter was struggling to overcome a nearly career-ending injury. In September, 1998, he had ruptured his Achilles tendon while playing basketball with friends. After surgery to the tendon, he could not walk. Despite expectations, he went on to recover and resume his career. By 2000, he was again ranked Canada's No. 1 sprinter. But he would not again clinch an international title. In 2001 he announced his retirement at the end of the season. He ran his final race in August at the world track-and-field championships in Edmonton, Alberta.
After receiving a standing ovation during a farewell lap, Bailey spoke with the media about his plans. "I came from corporate Canada, and I don't think it'll be a big problem going back," he told George Johnson of the Montreal Gazette. Bailey added that he'd also like to help coach Canada's new young sprinters. He lives in Oakville, Ontario, with his girlfriend, Michelle Mullin, and daughter, Adrienna.
|1967||Born December 16 in Manchester, Jamaica|
|1981||Moves to Canada with mother|
|1991||Begins serious training as a sprinter|
|1999||Ruptures Achilles tendon|
|2001||Announces retirement from sprinting at age 33|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1995||Gold medals in 100m (9.97 seconds) and 4×100m relay, world championships, Goteborg, Sweden|
|1995||Winner, 100m (9.91 seconds), Canadian championships|
|1996||World indoor record (5.56 seconds), 50m, Reno, Nevada|
|1996||Gold medals in 100m (9.84 seconds) and 4×100m, Olympic Games, Atlanta, Georgia|
|1996-99||World-record holder in 100m (9.84 seconds)|
The Canadian network Vision TV had planned to air an interview with Bailey on its show, "Credo," in late February, 2003, in conjunction with Black History Month. The show features Canadian newsmakers discussing faith and values.
"Maurice Greene." Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 27. Edited by Ashyia Henderson. Gale Group, 2001.
Buffery, Steve. "Donovan Bailey Has Quietly Become One of the World's Fastest Men." Toronto Sun (August 6, 1995).
Cole, Cam. "Ghost of Johnson Finally Laid to Rest." Gazette (Montreal; July 28, 1996): B1.
Farber, Michael. "Blast from the North." Sports Illustrated (July 22, 1996): 142.
Johnson, George. " I'll Stay in Sport'." Gazette (Montreal, August 7, 2001): C5.
Ralph, Dan. "Donovan's Done Dashing." Calgary Herald (May 26, 2001): C1.
Rowbottom, Mike. "Bailey Banks on Record Return after Dash for Cash Furore." Independent (London, January 26, 1998): S1.
Rowbottom, Mike. "Bailey Has the Twinkle of a Star." Independent (London, June 28, 1997): 25.
Todd, Jack. "Taking the Fast Lane to Atlanta." Gazette (Montreal, July 6, 1996): C1.
Sketch by Wendy Kagan