Athletics: Farce and fast bucks in the fast lane

Despite the hype, the million dollar sprinting challenge proved expensively inconclusive. Mike Rowbottom reports
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The Independent Online
We came to see the world's fastest man; we had to settle for the world's fastest buck.

Even if the $1m head-to-head over 150 metres here had been a reliable means of determining who was the swifter of Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson, the latter's limping withdrawal 70 metres from home confounded any conclusions.

The red and white fireworks which exploded either side of the line as Bailey crossed it could not disguise the fact that the event itself had backfired, although the bare result was enough to trigger national celebration at giving Uncle Sam one in the eye.

"Bailey for Prime Minister!" read the front page headline on the Toronto Sun's election day issue. "Oakville sprinter crushes lame Yank."

But those who wrote off Sunday night's self-styled One-to-One Challenge of Champions as a manufactured money-spinner would have to grant that it was real in at least one respect.

The mutual dislike Bailey and Johnson had exhibited in the build-up to their much-hyped meeting was revealed as entirely genuine.

Bailey's immediate reaction was that Johnson had faked injury to avoid a beating. "He's a chicken," he said. "He's just a chicken who's afraid to lose."

Offered the chance to amend or retract his comments, the Canadian - who has been angered at the lack of recognition in the United States for his achievement in becoming world and Olympic 100m champion - was unmoved. "He's called me a lot of things so, no, I don't regret saying it.

"He knew he was going to get hammered after the first 30 metres. It was very obvious that if I was level with him at that point the gap was only going to get bigger and my butt was just going to get smaller and smaller as I pulled away from him.

"I've always said that this race wasn't going to prove who was the fastest man in the world. What it was going to do was to shut Michael Johnson up."

In that respect, it was highly effective. The Olympic 200 and 400m champion walked - or rather, limped - out of a press conference, deeply affronted after being baited by the Canadian media.

"Did you throw the race?" he was asked. "Next question," he replied.

Asked to comment on Bailey's description of him as a chicken, he said: "It just shows you what kind of person he is. I'll show you what kind of person I am. I'm not going to address that."

He maintained that he had pulled the quadricep muscle on his left leg - "it grabbed, and it let go and I tried to keep on running. Then it grabbed again."

Before being driven away by a golf cart - a bathetic variation on the warrior leaving the battle on his shield - Johnson refused to be drawn over the possibility of a re-match. His concern now, he said, was to recover in time for the US world championship trials in two weeks' time.

But the possibility of a re-match remains - assuming Bailey thinks better of his post-race assertion that Johnson had had his chance, and that he would only contemplate a similar head-to-head against another sprinter.

"I think this event is a good idea," Bailey said. "But it's got to be organised by people who have a knowledge of track and field. It's still necessary for the sport to try a new direction. It was necessary for us to try this out."

Bailey maintained that the race was "never about money". He nevertheless had threatened to pull out when the financial uncertainties which had left the event open to question until the eleventh hour had been compounded for him by the lay-out of the track. When it was laid on Saturday, it formed a sharper bend than he had been led to expect. At the time, it seemed like a home-town decision in reverse.

Bailey's statement before the race that he was racing under "mental duress" because of the alteration certainly appeared like a handy excuse ahead of possible defeat, and his troubled face as he was presented to the 25,000 SkyDome crowd beforehand seemed to confirm that he was turning out more in hope than expectation.

Johnson, of course, has maintained his commercial viability because he can claim he was not effectively beaten by Bailey. Amid all the mind games, one was reminded that both men studied marketing at university.

The race operated at a number of levels. Financially, assuming the late intervention of the Toronto businessman Ed Cogan has indeed shored up the flagging operation of the promoters, Magellan Entertainment, both men receive $500,000 (pounds 300,000) and Bailey takes the prize of $1m, which made it the most lucrative payday for any track athlete. No wonder he beamed and twinkled afterwards.

The nationalistic element in the meeting was heightened by a pantomime atmosphere. Big screen shows pictures of Johnson preparing in his dressing room. Boo. Johnson showing off his US vest after an Olympic victory. Boo. Big screen shows beaming Bailey on the podium for Canada. Hooray. Worried Bailey warming up. Hooray. As far as Canada was concerned, when it was all over, a win was a win.

As Bailey left the track to uproar, the national anthem started up. He was draped in the Maple Leaf flag and then led towards his waiting father for a televised hug. He was duly telephoned by the Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, and the two men agreed they should get together to play golf some time. Chretien may have more time on his hands than Bailey if the Canadian voters' apparent indecision is not resolved today.

If the occasion satisfied national pride, the unexpected drama it provided did little to harm the rival shoe manufacturers who both ackowledged the race as an element in a brand war. Adidas, Bailey's sponsors, received a high profile reward for their investment of $800,000 in the Toronto event, while Nike will hardly have been damaged by the publicity and lingering possibility of a re-match.

Had Bailey, who finished in 14.99sec, concentrated to the line, rather than turning to seek the challenge which failed to materialise, he would have beaten the unofficial world best mark for the distance of 14.93.

At the point where Johnson pulled out, Bailey had negotiated the 75 metres bend capably, despite its sharpness, and the American was clearly stretching to keep up with him.

Thus, as in the previous day's million-dollar challenge between Haile Gebrselassie and Noureddine Morceli in Hengelo, the withdrawal of one of the main protagonists clouded the issue.

"Let's settle this thing Once and For All!" exclaimed one of the biggest posters on view in the SkyDome. Some hype.

Although the weekend's match-racing experiment has had mixed results, the form itself - which is as old as the sport - deserves to be maintained.

Whether the SkyDome event will have succeeded in its stated aim of reviving flagging interest in track and field in North America remains to be seen. It certainly generated enough controversy to get itself noticed.