Athletics: Head to head, wallet to wallet

Simon Turnbull asks if next weekend's $1m races are crown duels or classic hype
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The Independent Online
It Just so happens that the show they have billed "The Challenge of the Champions", the race between Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson in Toronto a week today, is being staged by Magellan Entertainment, a company which falls under the umbrella of Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks corporation. In a bid to raise its sagging global profile, and to generate a few bucks along the way, athletics goes back to the future next weekend.

The 150 metres race featuring Bailey, the Olympic 100m champion, and Johnson, winner of the 200m and 400m in Atlanta last summer, is preceded on Saturday by a two-mile event in the Dutch town of Hengelo which pits together another two Olympic gold medallists, Noureddine Morceli and Haile Gebrselassie. The prize at stake in the Toronto SkyDome is $1m (pounds 600,000), though both sprinters will collect $500,000 just for settling into their starting blocks. The appearance fees for the Hengelo race have not been disclosed but the winner will be $1m richer if he breaks both the world record and the eight-minute barrier.

For track and field it is not so much a belated swing in the direction of high-profile pugilist promotion as a step back in time to the sport's own roots. Such match-made races are a throwback to the Victorian heyday of pedestrianism, when crowds would flock to bet on the outcome of professional contests at Hackney Wick and Lillie Bridge. A man named Deerfoot was the Michael Johnson of the era. He had no "S" marked on his chest but the head-dress he wore as a native of the Eagle tribe of Seneca Indians set him apart from the English champions. So did his superman performances. He ran 10 miles in 51min 26sec at Brompton in 1863, which stood as a world record for 21 years.

As chance would have it, the man behind the Hengelo head-to-head happens to be a direct descendant of Deerfoot, in the record books at least. Jos Hermens has held the 10-mile world track record (45min 57.6sec) since 1975. He promotes the Hengelo meeting, which two years ago produced a world record 10,000m run by Gebrselassie. He also acts as coach and manager to the great Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian world and Olympic 10,000m champion.

"There are all kinds of questions about a race like this," Hermens said. "But it helps to attract attention to the sport. In the United States they are only interested if money is involved. If it was just another world record attempt there would be no interest but make it a $1m race and it is different. It is not my view, just a fact of life. For track and field it is just another way of promoting the sport. Athletics fans would watch a world record attempt but the sport needs to attract attention from outside." And, of course, those - such as Hermens - with a vested interest in the sport can always cope with the extra money a wider spotlight generates.

Athletics has been down this particular path thrice before in the past 12 years. And the dazzle of the cash has outshone the hoped-for razzle of the action on each occasion.

The re-match between Mary Decker and Zola Budd, after their little tangle in the Los Angeles Olympics, was a mis-match in all respects. Decker was in vastly superior form before their 3,000m race at Crystal Palace in 1985 and was a clear winner. Budd finished a distant fourth, 12 seconds adrift. But she was paid a staggering $50,000 more than Decker: $125,000 for a race she was never likely to win.

The winner of what was billed as another piece of unfinished Olympic business, in Lille in 1991, received a mere $1,000. But, then, the promoters had reckoned without Dennis Mitchell gatecrashing their party in such a sobering manner. Carl Lewis was pounds 175,000 richer for finishing second in that ill-conceived 100m race; Ben Johnson, seventh in 10.46sec (slower than the winning time in the British junior championships in Stoke the previous day), collected pounds 100,000. Lewis and Linford Christie earned a guaranteed pounds 100,000 each from their 100m meeting at Gateshead in 1993 but, once again, the protagonists were embarrassingly split. Jon Drummond pushed Christie close all the way; Lewis, who arrived on Concorde the previous day, was a detached third.

It will be different in Toronto. The challenging Olympic champions will have no outside challengers. "A head-to-head is no good if someone else wins," Ray Flynn, Bailey's manager, said. "That race in Lille was a classic case. In Toronto it's got to be Donovan or Michael who wins. Only the two athletes will be on the track. The spotlight will be on them alone and that will heighten the impact; with all respect to the other great sprinters in the world it would only detract from the race if they were in it."

Frankie Fredericks would disagree. Runner-up to Bailey in the 100m in Atlanta, and second to Johnson in the 200m, he was so piqued by his exclusion he asked Colin Jackson to put a 150m race on the programme at the Welsh Games next Saturday. A world record for the rarely contested distance would surely be too much to expect in Cardiff, but Fredericks is said to be in the mood to threaten the 14.8sec Pietro Mennea set 14 years ago in Cassino. An even more notable third man, though, will be missing in Hengelo.

Daniel Komen is the world's fastest ever two-mile runner. On a water- logged track in Lappeenranta, Finland, last July he shattered Gebrselassie's world record by almost four seconds. The fact that his fleet feet are endorsed by the swoosh of Nike rather than the three stripes of Adidas, however, explains the young Kenyan's absence from the record bid in Holland. It is not just any race on the European circuit, but The Adidas Two Mile Race. Komen is preparing instead for the 5,000m grand prix race in Rome on 5 June.

At least the exclusive two-man show in Toronto is not a clock- chasing exercise. The selling point, which television companies from 53 countries have duly bought, is the score to be settled between Bailey and Johnson - or between Canada and the United States. The personal rivalry stretches back to Atlanta, where Bailey was denied the Olympic 100m champion's traditional acclaim as the world's fastest man because of Johnson's breathtaking 200m victory. The international agenda harks back to the same debate which raged about Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis before the Canadian's steroid-assisted fall from grace nine years ago.

There was a time, of course, when Britain was gripped by a similar long- running dispute. Back in 1981 Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett traded the world mile record three times in nine days. Flynn, representing Ireland and East Tennessee State University in those days, was an also-ran in two of those battles of the middle-distance Britons, fought strictly at clock-arm's length. But Bailey's manager is quick to remind you, Coe and Ovett never did meet in the same mile race. "It was one of the great clashes that never happened," Flynn said. "I'm sure they both regret it now." Not half as much as their bank managers, he might have added.