Athletics: Showman Bailey feels the heat

Pat Butcher in Athens sees the 100m favourite suffer a troublesome day
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The Independent Online
Nobody could tell whether Donovan Bailey was kidding or not when he struggled to qualify for sprint finals day in the World Athletics Championships in Athens. It wouldn't be the first time a sprinter looked deliberately bad in order to fool his opponents.

And this is the first time that Bailey has come into a major championship as favourite, after winning this title two years ago and the Olympic crown last year against the odds. His manager, Ray Flynn, illuminated the drama later when he outlined the nature of the problem, referring to mild cramp and predicting no problems for his man today.

Bailey seemed intent on being perverse from the word go yesterday. He made a sluggish start in the opening 100m heat in the morning, almost defying the start statistics by ultimately qualifying easily. Then he struggled in his second round and eased off sharply before the finish. He stayed ahead of Britain's Darren Campbell, but was well down on Tim Montgomery of the United States. Montgomery ran 9.98, Bailey 10.10.

Bailey, however, simply added to his fast growing legend of being one of the "characters" on the athletics circuit, that is to say something more than just the fastest man in the world. His late entry to world-class athletics, at the age of 23, has made him something of an unknown quantity. But if two consecutive titles, World and Olympic, in 1995 and 1996 didn't do the trick, then his match against Michael Johnson for that "fastest man in the world" crown certainly did.

There should never have been any debate about it, because everybody inside athletics knows the Olympic 100m champion is touching speeds of close to 42km an hour, while the 200m champion, even at the pace Johnson was running, does not get into the mid-thirties.

But Johnson's insistence that he was "the man" annoyed Bailey so much that when Johnson broke down in their race in Toronto, the Canadian just exploded with vituperation.

He quickly apologised, and it was hardly on the Mike Tyson scale of sporting misdeed anyway. But it certainly helped popularise Bailey's name. The match itself was widely criticised in Europe, but as Bailey pointed out: "It got bigger figures in Canada than the Olympic final, and CBS [the US network] reckoned it was their highest figure for athletics in years." The likelihood is that there will be a rematch early next year, probably in Las Vegas. "If he feels that he got hurt last time, and that's why he didn't win, we'll do it again. I'll prepare for it again, and when I prepare for something and I get focused, it usually comes out the way I want."

At 29, and a successful businessman before he came into the sport, Bailey is very much his own man. After reports of a row with his coach at the training track this week, his manager confirmed: "He can be a volatile character." One of the US coaches said: "I gather the same thing happened last year before Atlanta, but maybe that's how the kid gets himself up for races."

Maybe not. Bailey's opening round heat yesterday left spectators gasping, initially for his lethargy at the start, then for his recuperation. He left the blocks with all the urgency of someone easing himself out of the armchair to reach for the TV zapper. His reaction time off the blocks was 0.214sec. By way of comparison, when Dennis Mitchell won the bronze medal in Toyko in 1991, his reaction time was 0.093sec. In short, Bailey will have to do considerably better if he is to win gold this afternoon. Maybe he could have a chat with Michael Johnson.