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Athletics: Bailey steps out of the shadows

Speed merchant from Johnson City heads for Sheffield showdown with a point to prove.
It is merely by coincidence that the head office of Donovan Bailey, Speed Merchant, can be found in a place called Johnson City. Ray Flynn, the Irishman who administers the business affairs of the world and Olympic 100m champion, just happens to be based in the Tennessee city that bears the name his quick buck-chaser has yet to leave behind. Although a familiar three-striped brand-mark, in the form of a Lions rugby shirt, will be emblazoned on Bailey's chest when he parades before the Don Valley Stadium crowd in advance of the 150m race in the Securicor Games in Sheffield tonight. The legend "Johnson and Johnson" would seem more apposite.

For once - the first time, in fact - the Canadian will not have Michael Johnson cramping his high-velocity style. Ever since he emerged as the new world leader at 100m - even when he grasped Linford Christie's Olympic crown in world record time in Atlanta last summer - Bailey has been in the shadow of the Texan the world assumed bore an "S" of Superman beneath his vest. Only on Tuesday, organisers of the Gaz de France meeting in Paris deemed Johnson, the world and Olympic champion at both 200m and 400m, rather than Bailey, worthy of a pre-event press conference. But the following night Johnson ran out of gaz in the home straight and could finish only fifth in the 400m. Tonight, instead of being the star attraction in Sheffield, Clark Kent is back home in Waco.

The limelight has been left to the man whose explosive speed from the blocks left Johnson clutching a damaged quadricep, and his wounded pride, in Toronto's SkyDome four weeks ago. Bailey celebrated his victory as though a score had been settled, as well as a $1m purse won, in the 150m One-to-One Challenge. That unfinished business remains was apparent on Friday when Flynn, in a suite at a West End hotel in London, spoke of plans for a return race in Las Vegas before the summer ends. In support of the proposed re-match he cited the Canadian Broadcasting Service's official viewing figures for the original, one-sided bout. "It was 36 million," Flynn said, "200,000 more than watched Ben Johnson's comeback race in 1991."

Thus the man from Johnson City brought us to that other Johnson - with evidence that his man is starting to emerge not just from the giant shadow cast by the all-American hero of the Atlanta Olympics but from the towering shadow of Big Ben. There was no hero's welcome when Bailey returned from the World Championships in Gothenburg two years ago with the 100m gold medal in his kit-bag. Canada was still grieving for the national pride lost by what Bailey refers to as "the 1988 incident". The boos rang round the airport lounge in Toronto when Ben Johnson arrived back from the 1988 Olympics minus the 100m gold. But the cheers could hardly have been much louder when Bailey beat Michael Johnson in the same city on 1 June.

When the Toronto Globe and Mail splashed on the size of the national television audience drawn by the fast man from Oakville, Ontario, it carried a footnote reporting Ben Johnson's intention to fight against his lifetime ban in court next month. Though Bailey is listed as holder of the 100m world record, with the 9.84sec he clocked in the Olympic final, Johnson's name and times are still denoted, albeit with an accompanying asterisk and explanation of their steroid-assisted nature. In much the same way as Bailey's claim to the title of "world's fastest man" has been undermined by Michael Johnson, on the strength of the American's 19.32sec 200m run in Atlanta, the lingering mention of Ben Johnson's ill-gotten 9.83 secs at the 1987 World Championships in Rome and 9.79sec in Seoul has somewhat clouded the picture of the world record holder's place in the all-time scheme of things.

The indications are, however, that Bailey is about to put the record book straight. His form in Nuremberg a fortnight ago confirmed the claim he made in London on Friday: that he is well ahead of the seasonal schedule that took him to his world record peak in Atlanta last year. He was not just a class apart from Christie - who is likely to be his closest pursuer tonight - but, having stopped the clock at 9.94sec, significantly quicker than he was at the same stage in 1996. It was little wonder the former basketballer, who only seriously switched his attention to sprinting in 1994 at the age of 26, appeared to be a picture of contentment after arriving for the first British date on his pre-World Championship schedule.

"I'm okay," he said, the gold chain around his neck reflecting the golden glint in his early- season races. "I'm faster than I was at this time last year. I'm a lot stronger too, and I'm in better shape - I'm 8lb lighter." But likely to be a few pounds richer tonight - pounds 130,000, to be precise. In addition to his reported pounds 80,000 appearance fee, Bailey stands to collect the pounds 50,000 prize for winning the 150m in Sheffield.

The $64,000 question that remains to be answered is precisely how fast the new model Bailey can go at 100m. "I don't know the time," he said, "but I'm still far away from running my perfect race. I think I will improve this year, but I still have a lot to work on. I can get stronger and technically there's a lot of room for improvement. My first 30 metres could do with some help and so could my last 30. My middle 40 could be a bit better too. My goal is to run the perfect race and I could still run a lot faster."

The grand prix in Lausanne on Wednesday might bring Bailey closer to perfection, though the four rounds of major championships have brought out the best in him so far. "I prefer running the rounds in a major championship," he said. "It builds character. It shows the toughness of the athletes as they step up through the competition."

Bailey happens to have a perfect record from the two major championships he has contested. For the tough of the track, in pursuit of his high- speed Holy Grail, the World Championships in Athens should be the perfect stage - this year, at least.

The 150 metres: A race and a half

1983 Pietro Mennea, Italy's reigning Olympic 200m champion, establishes the world best for the rarely run distance. At Cassino, he clocks a hand- timed 14.8 sec.

1993 John Regis is timed at 14.93sec at 150m point before being passed by Frankie Fredericks in World Championship 200m final in Stuttgart.

1994 Linford Christie records the fastest non-wind-assisted electronically clocked time in an actual 150m race. He runs 14.97sec in an end-of-season meeting in Sheffield. Donovan Bailey finishes behind him.

1995 Christie clocks 14.74sec in Sheffield but following wind speed is above the "legal" limit, at 3.9m-per-second. Bailey is second in 15.19sec.

1997 Easing down before the line, unaware how close he is to a record time, Ian Mackie wins Welsh Games 150m race in Cardiff in 14.99sec. The following day Bailey stops the clock in precisely the same time in the SkyDome in Toronto. He, too, finishes in the deceleration mode, peering over his right shoulder to discover the fate of Michael Johnson, his intended rival in the One-to-One Challenge race.