VICE Sports Q&A: Donovan Bailey on His Olympic Gold, Usain Bolt, and the Michael Johnson Race

We caught up with Canadian sporting icon Donovan Bailey, who won the 100-metre race at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta 20 years ago.
August 11, 2016, 8:36pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Canada.

Can you believe that it has been 20 years since Donovan Bailey wrote one of the all-time iconic moments in Canadian sport, winning the gold medal in the 100-metre dash at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics with what was, at the time, a world record of 9.84 seconds? Just 28 years old at the time, Bailey's time held up as the world record until Maurice Greene ran a 9.79 in 1999.

Not surprisingly, the men's 100 metres at the upcoming Rio Olympics promises to be another marquee event with Usain Bolt looking to make history and become the first athlete ever to claim back-to-back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the event. In addition to the 100 metres, Bolt will also try to complete his Olympic triple three-peat with a third gold medal in the 200 metre and 4x100 metre relay event.

VICE Sports recently caught up with Bailey to look back on his historic accomplishment, get his thoughts on Bolt's greatness, the controversy leading up to the Rio Games, and his 150-metre race against American star Michael Johnson in 1997.

READ MORE: We Hung Out with Penny Oleksiak's Friends and Watched the 16-year-old Olympic Star Make History

VICE Sports: Does it feel like 20 years have passed since you won Olympic gold and set a world record in the 100 metres at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics?

Donovan Bailey: Not really. It doesn't really feel that long ago. Maybe only a bit physically! But I'm blessed and very fortunate to be reminded every day by the incredible fans that I have around the globe about where they were and what they were doing. I get to relive it every time I meet a fan, which is every day wherever I am in the world.

What was the tension like at the start line before that 100 metre race after dealing with three different false starts, which led to you being on the track for nearly 13 minutes before getting a clean start?

I was very prepared and when I got on the track, I knew that I was in great shape to do something significant. But, yes, it was a long time. The 13 minutes that you saw felt like two days to me. Fortunately, my team and I were very thorough so we did assume there would be a couple of people false starting so I was prepared for it. Ultimately, when I settled in the blocks for the third time, I finally told the guys to settle down and we got to it. I had a pretty bad start but I kept it together and won.

So hang on, you went to your fellow competitors and told them to settle it down and get a clean start?

I said it when I got in the blocks because I was getting a little pissed off. I told the guys to settle down because the race is going to be over soon.

Did anybody respond?

It didn't matter. I wasn't waiting for a response. I just wanted them all to know that I was ready.

When the defending champion Linford Christie was disqualified for causing two false starts, how did that affect your mindset?

It never affected my mindset because I had beaten him all year long. That really was the point. I was No. 1 coming into the Olympics. I was reigning World Champion. Linford is my good buddy and I totally respect him but there was one gold medal and it was going to be mine.

How fast do you think you could run the 100 metres today?

I have no clue. Absolutely no idea. I wouldn't even try it. That's a question I get asked regularly. Nobody asks Wayne Gretzky how many goals he would score on the hockey rink now. I think sometimes people make track and field so very simple and trivial and when you are the very best in the history of the world at something, you can't just step on and do it. How good is Tiger Woods from when he was No. 1 compared to today? How good is Pelé compared to when he was at the top? I think sometimes when I speak (on this question), I want to bring it to a higher level of discussion. Track and field seems a very simple thing so asking that question is actually quite normal, so I'm definitely not offended by being asked that question because everybody can run, right? But in the same context, most people can play hockey or most people can play golf but not to that world-class level. But anyways, I don't know how fast I'd run today. I wouldn't even want to try.

What was the pressure like in the starting blocks before your 150-metre race with Michael Johnson in 1997 compared to the 100-metre final in 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics? Starting on a turn was certainly not your specialty compared to Johnson. You had just set a world record in the 100 metres but Johnson had set a world record in the 200 metres and had won gold in the 400 metres. Did this race feel to you like a referendum on your status as the top track athlete in the world at the time?

It's really funny—I actually went into the race knowing that I had nothing to lose. I had never lost a race to Michael Johnson and he was coming into my house. The SkyDome in 1992 and 1993 belonged to the Toronto Blue Jays, but in 1997 it was mine. For me, it was all the fellows from Oakville that I grew up with, all the guys I played basketball with at Sheridan (College). My parents were there. All of Toronto and all of Canada was behind me. Fifty-thousand people at the SkyDome, I had nothing to lose and felt like I had nothing to prove. To me, it was an incredible financial windfall because it is still the biggest purse awarded to any track and field athlete for a one-day competition. (Bailey and Johnson each earned $500,000 as an appearance fee. Bailey earned an additional $1 million for winning the race). It was also a day where Canada could be proud. I think sometimes we take a back seat to any other country in every sport other than hockey. It was probably more so Canada and showing our pride that, yes, we were going to kick some butt that day.

You said right after winning that race that Johnson "didn't pull up but that he was a chicken and afraid to lose." Do you still feel that to be the case?

The unfortunate thing was that a microphone was put in my face right after I ran and I was a little hot. Michael and I had some great verbal jabbing throughout the competition and that's really what it was for me. My opinion that day has not changed. I won and I think he got beaten pretty bad.

Michael Johnson recently said that in his prime he would beat Usain Bolt in the 200 metres saying, "I win that race every day. Every time we line up, I win that race guaranteed." What do you make of that statement?

Well I think that's absurd because if I had run the 200 metres, Michael Johnson would never have won an Olympic gold medal in that event. How about that?

I've got to ask then, why didn't you run the 200 metres?

Because I'm lazy. The 200 metres is twice as far as I wanted it to be. I hated practice and you have to understand, the 200 metres is also the consolation prize, anyway. The 100 metres is what it's all about, and the 400 metres. I completely respect Michael Johnson for what he's done in the 400 metres but the 200 metres is a different race, it's a consolation prize. To me, if Frankie Fredericks or Ato Boldon, who were both faster than Michael from a power-speed perspective, if both of those guys had focused and trained only for the 200 metres, Michael would never have beaten them. But Michael in his prime beating Usain Bolt in the 200 metres? No chance. Listen, come on, there's absolutely no chance.

Usain Bolt is looking to win gold in the 100 metres, 200 metres and 4x100 metre events for the third straight Olympics. If he is able to accomplish this goal, put into perspective what the magnitude of this achievement would be?

I can't put it into perspective; I can't put that into words. Here's the issue: In the history of the planet, nobody has ever repeated as the Olympic gold medallist in the 100 metres before Usain Bolt did it. I'm just talking about repeating, doing it back to back. Carl Lewis did it in 1984 and 1988 in the 100 metres but he was handed it in 1988 because of Ben's stupidity (Ben Johnson being disqualified for a positive doping test). To win the Olympic gold medal in the 100 metres is an absurd feat. The fact that Bolt is coming back to try to win triple gold for a third straight time, there is nothing in sports terms that compares to. It would be like the top soccer player going to the World Cup, winning the World Cup and scoring ten goals each World Cup three times in a row. The fact that Bolt perfected it once, pressed reset and perfected it twice and now is going to try to do it a third time, there's nothing that compares to repeating it once so there are no words that could describe him doing it three times in a row.

Can anyone stop Bolt? Probably not. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When you watch Usain Bolt run, as a former gold medallist in the sport, what do you take away from watching him that the average person might not notice or recognize?

Ultimately, he's 6'6", he's a sprinter and I understand the transition of what it is he needs to do as he gets out of the blocks. As a bigger guy being taller and faster than the athletes he's going up against, I'm watching what he does for the first 30 metres when he gets into his drive phase which is where he usually separates himself from the pack. You have to understand, he's bigger, stronger and faster than everybody else. All he has to do is be consistent coming out of the blocks. He's the only man competing right now that can make a mistake and still win. When he stands up and opens up, his stride length is a lot longer than all the athletes he's competing against so when he hits top speed he's going to separate himself.

Canadian Andre De Grasse, 21, had a breakout year in 2015, winning gold in the 100 metres and 200 metres at the Pan Am Games and a bronze in the 100 metres at the World Championships. He became the first Canadian since you to break the 10-second barrier. How would you assess his chances to medal in the 100 metres in Rio?

Andre's got amazing upside and he's definitely one of the new shining stars of professional track and field. He's being guided by my team, by the guys who coached me and I keep a close eye on things and can give him any advice he needs. His chances are amazing. His speed work has been going well. I told him when I saw him two weeks ago just to take things one race at a time but he already knows what to do so I don't need to give him much advice. He doesn't need to panic and all he has to do is give himself a chance. I want him to run a great semifinal and then lay it all out in the finals. He has an opportunity to do some incredible things in Rio.

After a successful 2015, De Grasse is looking to medal in the 100 metre. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, a lot of negative publicity has surrounded the upcoming Rio Olympics. From political corruption, to significant budget overruns, to the Zika virus, to sewage contaminated waters, there is a laundry list of issues that have cropped up. If you were still competing today, would these issues affect your decision to attend the Games?

Absolutely not. The Olympics are the pinnacle of all sports. Every single athlete in this world who wants to be recognized and also have and maintain an unblemished legacy, the Olympics is the top. There is no chance that if I was competing today that I would be staying at home. No chance. (For the record, Bailey indicated that he is heading to Rio to take part in the festivities.)

A lot of notable athletes have withdrawn from competition for the Rio Games but the majority of them are from sports like golf, tennis and basketball. These athletes tend to be wealthy professionals where the pinnacles of achievement for their sport are not found at the Olympics. Nonetheless, are you surprised to see the amount of high-profile athletes who have withdrawn and given up the chance at an Olympic medal?

Everyone has their own reasons. There are a couple guys I know who have pulled out because they are young fathers so they are worried about how future children might be affected. I completely understand that. Obviously with basketball or golf, there is a different side of how the profession is perceived. I can only speak on track and field and I know that sprinters make a lot of money, as much or more money than basketball players or golfers. It's a legacy thing as opposed to just money for track and field athletes because track athletes don't get paid for the Olympics, but having the Olympic title allows them to make millions of dollars. The value of a gold medal in the 100 metres in the Olympics is worth at least $50 million.