Athletics: Bailey banks on record return after dash for cash furore

The Monday interview
Click to follow
Donovan Bailey won $1.5m from one race alone last season, but ended up second best in the chase for medal glory. Silver at the World Championships was not good enough for the man considered to be the world's top sprinter. Now he aims to be the best again - in record style.

Last year's acrimonious dispute between Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson as to who was the world's fastest man may yet have an unusual sequel: who is the world's tidiest man?

The compulsive neatness of the latter is well documented, but step forward Mr Meticulous of Oakville, Canada.

"My house is like my brain," Bailey said. "If everything is in compartments, there is tons of room to breathe and so much more information I can absorb. I can't go to bed if there is an article of clothing that is on the wrong side of the floor."

He gives one of his characteristic wide grins, but he really means it. Tidiness of mind is instinct in him.

"I live my life like that. If I have a goal, I have to concentrate on each ingredient of that goal. If I meticulously measure each ingredient daily, then eventually I will be at my utmost best."

Since Bailey gave up a flourishing career as a marketing and property consultant to take up sprinting seriously in 1993, at the relatively advanced age of 25, his utmost best has proved to be better than anyone else's.

He relieved Linford Christie of the world 100 metres title in 1995, and a year later in Atlanta secured the Olympic 100m title ahead of pre-race favourites Ato Boldon and Frankie Fredericks, lowering the world record to 9.84sec in the process.

Last year, however, Bailey's experiences were mixed. In June he earned himself the biggest prize in athletics history - $1.5m - by finishing ahead of Johnson, the Olympic 200 and 400m champion, in a one-to-one challenge over 150m. But two months later, at the World Championships in Athens, he was beaten in the 100m final by the 23-year-old American Maurice Greene.

Bailey was passing through London on Saturday en route to New Zealand and then Australia, where he will combine training with a sequence of races that will include at least one meeting with Greene.

However, the suggestion that this year - which has no global athletic championship - is to be dedicated to regaining his position as the world's No.1 sprinter is met with a hard stare.

"I don't believe I have to re-establish myself as No 1," he said. "I think that anyone who is involved in athletics would acknowledge that. If I stay healthy, then I'll break the world record again this year.

"I would also like to improve on my 200m best of 20.14 this year. I think I could get down to the 19.70's on a good day, depending who's in the race."

For all Bailey's love of order, he is not cautious about what he says. Clothes out of place - never. Words out of place - often.

When he accused Johnson of being "a faker and a chicken" after the American had pulled up half-way through their Toronto showdown, his training partners Bruny Surin and Glenroy Gilbert reacted with glee.

"Forget all this niceness on TV," Gilbert was reported as saying. "Forget all the `oh, he's so articulate'. Let's see the real guy. That's Donovan - and it just came out."

The day after Bailey's diatribe to the jubilant Canadian media, an official apology was issued in which he expressed the hope that Johnson's injury would not hamper his season too severely.

However, Bailey makes no pretence about the emptiness of that gesture. "Maybe I was wrong to go off in such a tirade when there were so many kids watching. But I think adults could probably understand. If I had to do it all over again, I'd react the same way."

The explanation by Mike Tyson's former coach Teddy Atlas as to why his one-time charge had disqualified himself from his world title challenge by biting Evander Holyfield's ear is one which interested Bailey. Atlas said Tyson chose his extraordinary course of action to save face among his peers when he realised he could not win.

Although the analogy is far from direct, Bailey felt similarly about the way Johnson gave up during their One-on-One Challenge.

"That's why I got angry," he said. "It was the exact same feeling. It was a case of `Man, I'm going to lose here really badly, but I can't really cross the line and accept it, so I'm going to do something to detract from it.'

"Michael, and the American media had said a lot of things beforehand that weren't necessary. If he had finished and acknowledged that he was wrong, that was the whole idea of it for me. But neither of us got the pride or respect we were searching for."

Boxing greatly interests Bailey. "It's man against man. And you can see a lot of things. It's the true test of mental and physical strength. I see an Olympic final in the same way - there's eight guys fighting and there are no gloves. We have mental gloves on.

"And just like in fights, you can see people breaking down as the rounds go on in the Olympics or world championships. By the time you reach the final, you can almost tell who's going to finish well, or who's going to win by a knockout.

"There are some runners who are physically strong, but mentally weak. And sometimes if they line up alongside someone who has run a very fast time, they get full of nervous tension. Whereas if I am in that situation it heightens what I do."

While question marks remain over the mental strength of the hugely gifted Boldon and Fredericks, Bailey demonstrated his toughness by the way in which he stayed relaxed and unflustered in the 1996 Olympic final after all the fuss over Linford Christie's disqualification for two false starts.

"I was getting more relaxed as the false starts kept coming," he said. "If we'd had eight it would have been great, because I'd have probably run 9.70 then."

Bailey has not been averse to winding up Christie in the past - he forecast, correctly, that the British champion would relent in his determination to avoid the 1996 Olympics, and he also made it clear that he was not convinced that Christie was hampered by a genuine injury in the 1995 World Championship final.

But he firmly rejects the theory darkly espoused in a few minds that Christie deliberately got himself disqualified from the Olympic final because he knew he could not win.

"I don't believe that Linford Christie would throw a race. He's just too strong, mentally and physically, and I respect him too much to even suggest that," he said. "I believe he was just trying to get out fast and say, `come and get me'."

Bailey's final prediction about Christie - that he would compete in the last World Championships - was not realised, although he feels Christie could have made a significant impact on the event had he chosen to run.

"I guess his motivation wasn't there and when that happens it is the right thing to do to retire," he said.

Having turned 30 last month, Bailey is well aware of his finite athletic span. "I certainly won't be continuing in the sport until I am 37, as Linford did. I think if I run at the 2000 Sydney Olympics that probably would be my last year."

Bailey has always been open in his nature, a very different character from the more naturally circumspect Johnson. But many observers were confused by the signals he put out before the last World Championships.

He spoke often about the injuries and illness which were undermining his preparations - he said a stomach virus had caused him to lose 14lb - but insisted he was still capable of winning.

Boldon accused the Jamaican-born Canadian of gamesmanship, describing him as being "an old dog up to his tricks". In the event, after two near disastrous rounds, Bailey recovered his form to take silver in 9.91sec to Greene's 9.86.

That medal now hangs above the pool table in his apartment in Texas, where he trains under the guidance of his long-time coach, Dan Pfaff.

"I put the medal where I can see it every day," he said. "I believe that it should have been gold and should have been a world record to follow 1996. But it also reminds me that I am not superhuman and mistakes can happen."

Bailey's mistake was that, having drawn level with Greene after 70m, he strained too hard to draw away rather than maintaining his relaxation.

"Maurice had a better start than I did, but my acceleration phase in the middle of the race was faster than at the Olympic Games. So all I had to do was relax and breathe. If I had done that I would have blown past him and broken the world record. My time would probably have been around 9.79, 9.81 seconds.

"I caught him, but instead of relaxing I tried to run faster and you can't do that when you are already in fifth gear. You can't shift again."

But the year of 1997 was more deeply flawed through what Bailey now feels was a misguided strategy. "I was so focused on beating Michael Johnson over 150m. It meant more to me than the Olympics, because it was about pride more than anything else, and it was in my city of Toronto, and it was man against man.

"So when I won that, the air went out of the season. I found it was impossible to peak twice. What I should have done was to take two weeks or so of downtime. Maybe I should have gotten injured like Michael did," he added, mischief curling his lip.

Bailey has come a very long way from the circumstances of his upbringing in Jamaica, where he would wake at dawn to help his mother Daisy look after the chickens and goats, and feed the pigs before going off to school.

Given that background, it was no small decision to throw over his business career for athletics. But, ultimately, he felt there was no option.

"With athletics, the window of opportunity is real small," he said. "I can't sit and try to figure out why I didn't do something when I am 40 years old. Business can be done later. If I'm doing something that's going to take my entire mental and physical being together then that's why I had to drop everything else in 1993.

"I believe if I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it hard. I said at the time that I was going to give it one shot. If it worked, it worked. And if it didn't, at least I could say I had given it a shot."

He paused for a moment - and there was that huge, twinkling grin once again. "Fortunately it's worked."