If Sunday’s 150-meter runoff between Michael Johnson and Donovan Bailey was truly the shot in the arm North American track and field needed, it might be time to melt down the starting blocks, roll up the rubber running surface and turn the floor over to arena football.
Promoters did more scrambling around in Toronto this weekend than Johnson, who pulled up limping after the first 85 meters and allowed Bailey to cross the finish line alone while mockingly waving for Johnson to hurry up.
The much-hyped “One to One Challenge of Champions” was reduced to “One to None.”
After the race was nearly canceled twice this week--once because of a lack of funding, another time when Bailey threatened to pull out in a protest over the track configuration--the most highly publicized event in North American track since the Atlanta Olympics ended with the American failing to finish and the Canadian deriding his opponent as “a chicken” on national television.
“He didn’t pull up--he’s just a chicken,” Bailey told a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. interviewer moments after completing the 150 meters in 14.99 seconds. “He’s afraid to lose.
“We should run this race again, so I can kick his [expletive] one more time.”
Before an estimated 30,000 at the Skydome, Bailey, the world record-holder at 100 meters, beat Johnson, the world record-holder at 200 meters, at a contrived split-the-difference distance that, ultimately, failed to decide anything.
But Bailey wasn’t buying any claim that his victory was tainted. After the adrenaline and post-sprint bravado had somewhat abated, Bailey began his interview session by again accusing Johnson of quitting.
Asked if Johnson had pulled up because he was beaten, Bailey grinned widely and replied, “Oh, yeah. It was very obvious, once he saw the gap getting bigger and bigger and the size of my butt getting smaller and smaller.”
Johnson, who fell behind Bailey in the first 50 meters and trailed by at least a full stride when he pulled up, said he sustained a pulled left quadriceps and attended his interview session with his left leg heavily wrapped.
Someone asked Johnson for a response to Bailey’s “chicken” allegation.
“That shows a lot about what kind of person he is,” Johnson said. “I’m going to show you what kind of person I am: I’m not going to address that.”
Another question alluded to Johnson “packing it in” when he fell behind. One more wondered if Johnson had been “genuinely injured” or did he simply “throw the race?”
The famous withering Johnson glare met both queries.
“I hope you’re very proud of yourself,” Johnson shot back. Then, stepping away from a potential international incident, Johnson softened his reply by adding, “And I hope you’re very proud of Donovan. You should be.
“I’ll just say: I’m very proud of myself for the way that I handled myself here. And will continue to handle myself the same way.”
It was a fitting conclusion--or nonconclusion--to a chaotic week that seemed to symbolize, rather than salve, all that ails track and field on this side of the globe. Fly-by-night promotion, rampant disorganization, last-minute “injury” cancellations by competitors scheduled on Sunday’s undercard--this event had it all, plus a prerace written protest from the eventual winner.
Wednesday, U.S. sprinter Gail Devers and Cuban high jumper Javier Sotomayor said they were joining Russian pole vaulter Sergei Bubka as scratches from Sunday’s five-event undercard, so planners found 11th-hour replacements.
Thursday, organizers scrapped a ticker-tape parade through downtown Toronto out of promotional primal fear--what if you threw a parade and nobody came?
Friday, Johnson was two hours late to a hype-the-race news conference, where his agent, Brad Hunt, revealed that both runners had been paid only $200,000 of their guaranteed $500,000 appearance fees, with the $1 million winner’s prize also unaccounted for. According to Hunt, only a bailout by a Toronto developer named Edward Cogan prevented the race from falling apart.
Saturday, Bailey inspected the track that had been laid down inside the Skydome and found the dimensions different from those to which he had originally agreed. Primarily a straight-away runner, Bailey had sought a short curve--75 meters was the agreement, he said--but the actual layout wrapped the first 85 meters around a turn.
At that point, Bailey said he considering pulling out.
By Sunday morning, he had agreed to run, but only after issuing a written statement “that I run today under mental duress.”
Then, less than 10 seconds into the race that, according to its billing, was supposed to determine “The World’s Fastest Human,” Johnson retired because of physical duress.
At least that was his story, and he was sticking to it Sunday night.
Fellow American Charles Austin, who defeated Sweden’s Patrik Sjoberg in the high jump with a mark of 7 feet 6 1/2, said, “The first 20 meters, Donovan was ahead--he was the king. He was leading at the turn.”
That wasn’t supposed to happen, not according to the prerace over-analysis, which held that Johnson’s experience in running curves would give him the early lead.
When it didn’t, Bailey said Johnson “knew he was going to get beat. He knew he was going to get hammered after the first 30 meters.”
A few strides later, Bailey crossed the finish as . . . The Fastest Man In The World?
Or The Last Man Standing?
“This race was never going to prove who was the fastest in the world,” Bailey said. “All it was going to do was shut up Michael Johnson.”