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20 years ago today: The World’s Fastest Man race

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On June 1, 1997, Olympic 100m champion Donovan Bailey and Olympic 200m and 400m champion Michael Johnson raced at SkyDome in Toronto to determine The World’s Fastest Man.

At the 1996 Atlanta Games, the Canadian Bailey won gold by breaking the 100m world record (clocking 9.84 seconds). Likewise, Johnson shattered his 200m world record (19.32) in his famous golden shoes in Atlanta.

That sparked a debate. Which sprinter was more deserving of the “World’s Fastest Man” title? Normally, it’s associated with the Olympic 100m champion.

Bailey wasn’t much of a 200m runner. Johnson was an even rarer sight in the 100m. They had never gone head-to-head, according to Tilastopaja.org.

So the match race was set up at the Toronto Blue Jays ballpark as part of an hourlong TV special.

The day before, star U.S. distance runner Mary Slaney was suspended for suspicious testosterone levels at the 1996 Olympic Trials. The day after, Jean Chrétien was re-elected as Canadian Prime Minster.

The meet also featured one-on-one matchups in other events, most notably Jackie Joyner-Kersee and German rival Heike Drechsler in the long jump. Plus a Blues Brothers performance. Marcus Camby was among those in attendance, following his rookie season with the Toronto Raptors.

But the stage was truly for Bailey and Johnson, who traded verbal jabs in the seven-month lead-up. Each man received a $500,000 appearance fee, with another $1 million to the winner.

There was much more to the pre-event story. Bailey threatened to pull out hours before the start in a “pathetic press release,” as detailed by Sports Illustrated.

The race — the first 75 meters on a curve and the last 75 a straightaway — was a dud.

How Bailey would negotiate the curve was a concern, but he passed Johnson in the first 50 meters. Whether Bailey had the endurance to hold off Johnson beyond 100 meters went unanswered, however.

Johnson pulled up with an apparent leg injury. That led to immediate suspicion that Johnson gave up rather than finish in second place.

Bailey crossed the finish line alone in 14.99 seconds. The stock broker-turned-sprinter looked back amid unimpressive pyrotechnics. He taunted, waving a right hand toward a stalled Johnson in the distance.

“He didn’t pull up at all; he’s just a chicken,” Bailey said on CBC in a post-race interview. “He’s afraid to lose. I think what he should do is run this race over again, so I can kick his ass one more time.”

Bailey has since attributed that incendiary comment to an extension of the pre-race verbal posturing.

Johnson was asked in a post-race press conference if he “threw the race” or was “genuinely injured” and declined comment. He also refused to shoot back at Bailey’s insults.

Turns out, Johnson was injured. A strained left quadriceps. He missed the U.S. Championships later that summer and only made the 1997 World Championships — where he repeated as 400m champ — after the IAAF instituted a policy giving a bye to defending world champions.

Bailey finished second to Maurice Greene in the 100m at worlds. Greene snatched Bailey’s world record in 1999 by running 9.79.

Johnson’s 200m world record stood until Usain Bolt broke it in 2008 (19.30, followed by 19.19 in 2009). Johnson finally gave up his 400m world record to South African Wayde van Niekerk at the Rio Olympics.

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World downhill champion Ilka Stuhec tears ACL

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Lindsey Vonn’s top rival for downhill gold is in danger of missing the upcoming Olympics.

Ilka Stuhec, a world champion Alpine skier from Slovenia, suffered a torn ACL after a practice crash in Austria this weekend.

Stuhec had become a strong medal favorite for PyeongChang after winning FIS World Cup titles in downhill and Alpine combined last season. She also won a gold medal in downhill at the 2017 World Championships, where Vonn placed third.

According to a post on the FIS website, surgery is set for this Wednesday, with more information to come after that. But preliminary reports suggest that she is likely to miss the Olympics.

“For now it looks like Ilka Stuhec will have to miss a large part or maybe the whole World Cup season, including the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea,” a spokesperson for Struhec told Reuters.

In a tweet, Struhec acknowledged that she would be sidelined “for a few months.”

The Olympics start in less than four months.

 

U.S. Ski & Snowboard mourns after 17-year-old aerials skier found dead

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Mikey Lillis, a 17-year-old aerials skier, died in his sleep at his home in East Rochester, N.Y., overnight Saturday, according to U.S. Ski & Snowboard.

“We are a family, and as a family our entire team grieves for Mikey, his own family and his teammates,” U.S. Ski & Snowboard President and CEO Tiger Shaw said in a statement. “We’ll remember him for the pathway he was following and the goals he was beginning to achieve. Our condolences go out to his parents Bernie and Jamie and the entire Lillis family.”

Lillis was working his way to join his two older brothers at the elite international level. He made three podiums on the Nor-Am Cup tour between the last two seasons.

Jon Lillis, 23, is the reigning world champion in aerials. Chris Lillis, 19, won the FIS Rookie of the Year award last season with four top-10 finishes on the World Cup.