Running full throttle in front of a flag flying at half-staff, Donovan Bailey took on the fastest sprint field in history Saturday night, and then ran faster than any man ever has.
Bailey is a 28-year-old Canadian by way of Jamaica, a stockbroker-turned-sprint superman. Just two years ago, he didn’t even make the Canadian national team. So it was quite a climb that brought him to the 100-meter medal stand, after he clocked a world-record 9.84 in Olympic Stadium, doing it with a stunning surge of speed that took him from fifth place midway through the race to first place at the tape.
“When he’s in that zone in the middle of the race, very few people can play his game,” said Bailey’s coach, Dan Pfaff.
It was a victory that immediately harkened to 1988, when Ben Johnson, another Jamaican-born Canadian, set a world record of 9.79, only to be disgraced when he was busted for steroids.
“I wasn’t thinking about time,” Bailey said. “Anytime I go into a race thinking about time, I screw up. I was just trying to stay relaxed.”
As for the Johnson parallel, he said, “I’m not trying to undo what Ben did in Seoul. My name is Donovan Bailey.”
Frankie Fredericks of Namibia took his second straight silver (9.89), and Ato Boldon of Trinidad was third (9.90).
Dennis Mitchell, the top U.S. finisher, was fourth (9.99). It was the first time the U.S. had been shut out of the 100 medals since 1976.
Boldon, out of Jamaica, Queens, had predicted Friday that Leroy Burrell’s record (9.85) would fall, and the prediction was even better than his race. What he didn’t predict were three false starts that dramatically heightened tension, and resulted in the disqualification of defending champion Linford Christie, who was charged with two of the infractions.
“I’ve never done that in my life,” said a disgusted Christie, who appealed but was turned down.
The women’s 100 stirred an even hotter dispute, after diminutive Gail Devers defended her Olympic title in a race so tight that runnerup Merlene Ottey posted the same time as Devers’ - 10.94.
To the naked eye, it was impossible to determine the winner. After a panel of judges viewed the computerized images of the finish, and ruled in Devers’ favor, the Jamaican track federation filed a protest, claiming Ottey’s torso actually crossed first.
Ottey, at 36 a veteran of five Olympics, now has four bronzes and a silver. Approached for comment after the race, she said, “Are you an American journalist? If you are, I’m not going to talk to you.”
Later, she said, “It was one of those finishes, and I lost again.”
The bronze went to Georgia’s favorite daughter, Gwen Torrence (10.99), and though for most of the past year she was ballyhooed as the favorite to win two golds (in the 100 and 200), she showed no disappointment.
“I’m ecstatic. I wanted the gold, but I am overjoyed to get any kind of medal,” said Torrence, No. 1 in the world in the 100 the last two years. Torrence simply peaked too early; her time at last month’s trials (10.82) would’ve won handily Saturday.
Meanwhile, in a scintillating triple jump competition, Devers’ main squeeze and cohabitant, Kenny Harrison, had a stellar night of his own. He shattered the Olympic record on his first attempt, leaping 59-0-1/4 feet, inches, and again on his fourth, 59-4-1/4, the second- and third-longest jumps in history. The only man who has jumped farther, Jonathan Edwards, won the silver, flying 58-8 on his fourth attempt.
The son of a British clergyman, Edwards hadn’t lost since 1994. He was left to wonder what might’ve happened if he hadn’t fouled four times.
“Obviously, I had my problems,” Edwards said.
But by far the night’s transcendent story was the charismatic Bailey, who only began training seriously over the last several years and made his first major international splash when he won the gold medal at last summer’s world championships. Now he has the most precious piece of hardware of all, so it was no surprise to see him carrying a Canadian flag around the burnt red track, after he ran faster than any man ever has.
Deal leads hammer
Lance Deal, attempting to be the first U.S. medalist in the Olumpic hammer throw since Harold Connolly won the gold in 1956, led all qualifiers with a throw of 257 feet, 9 inches.
Deal, the American record-holder who is competing in his third Olympics, finished seventh in Barcelona.
“I was just trying to be technical,” Deal said. “I just went out there and threw. I know I can do that on every throw. It was a slow start, but not tomorrow.”
Three throwers were within 9 inches of each other at the top of the qualifying list. Igor Astapkovich of Belarus was second at 257-7. Favorite Balazs Kiss of Hungary was third at 257-0. Kiss won his fourth NCAA hammer championship this year for Southern California.
Twelve throwers qualified for today’s final.
The show must go on
Michael Johnson isn’t going to let the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park distract him from his mission.
“I think it’s very sad but I feel as everyone else does and all the Olympic officials do, that the games must go on,” he said after qualifying for the 400 semifinals. “I plan to go on with my plan here to bring home three gold medals. If we all just move on, I think the situation will be a lot better.”
Beaten in the semifinals of the men’s 100, American Jon Drummond was making no excuses.
“I ran the best I could,” he said. “The major thing is I was here and competed to the best of my ability. Now I’m going out and have a big juicy steak and potatoes.”
He also has the 400 relay, in which the Americans are favored, to look forward to.
MEMO: Cut in Spokane edition.