It is the final night of track and field at the London Olympics. Ryan Bailey stands on the Olympic Stadium track, his body turned away from the clicking cameras and his head tilted all the way down, facing his lime shoes, his hands resting on his hips and his heels nearly touching.
It appears the 23-year-old Olympic rookie is trying to escape the cauldron created by the wide-stanced man taking up the entire lane to his inside. Usain Bolt stretches his arms, flexes his biceps and stirs the crowd. Many of some 80,000 spectators focus on that tiny patch of the track, 40 seconds before the 4x100m relay final begins.
Bolt and Bailey are the anchor legs, waiting for their respective black and yellow batons after three exchanges in less than 30 seconds.
Bolt is seeking his sixth Olympic gold medal. Bailey is the U.S. sprinter who used to live out of a car, was once involved in gangs and stabbed three times with a pocket knife in high school, as detailed in pre-Olympic feature stories.
The gun goes off. Americans Trell Kimmons and Justin Gatlin hand a lead to third sprinter Tyson Gay, who loses the edge to Olympic 100m silver medalist Yohan Blake around the curve.
Bolt jumps out of his three-point stance. Bailey, one inch shorter, goes with him. They receive their batons almost simultaneously.
“I just ran for my life,” Bailey, on a fractured heel bone, repeated in interviews that chilly night. “We were neck and neck, for a little while.”
For about two seconds. Bailey (or any other man on the planet) didn’t stand a chance — “When [Bolt] got the stick,” Gay said, “there was nothing we could do about it.”
Bailey can be proud of the finish, two tenths behind Bolt, who ran through the line, and a total U.S. time of 37.04, matching the previous world record. Bailey can be seen in the background of many photos of Bolt doing Mo Farah‘s “Mobot” celebration on his deceleration.
Bailey talked after that race about still learning to run relaxed. That was a reminder that he is seven years younger than Gatlin and Gay. Bailey had equaled his personal best, 9.88, in the 100m final six days earlier and was the second youngest in that eight-man field behind Blake.
Neither Gatlin nor Gay is entered at this week’s U.S. Championships, where names are listed in order of fastest qualifying times. Bailey would seem a favorite then, but he is not even a certainty to make the 100m final in Sacramento, Calif., on Friday.
His track record since London becomes clear while scanning down the list, searching for the fifth-place 100m finisher from the Olympics. One. Two. Three. … no Bailey yet … Four. Five. Six. … still not there … Seven. …
Eight. Ryan Bailey. 10.10.
He hasn’t beaten 10 seconds since 2012, a two-year stretch weighed down by post-Olympic surgery on that heel bone, the flu and a balky hamstring. The hamstring in particular has been a constant for Bailey since he began running track as an Oregon high school sophomore.
Except for that Olympic season.
“I felt pretty lucky. I’ve never gone that long without an injury,” Bailey said before the Adidas Grand Prix in New York two weeks ago, leaving out the broken heel bone.
Two months after the Olympics, Bolt told Sports Illustrated of Bailey, “”People keep saying he’s the one, but he’s got a lot of work to do.”
The problem has been getting that work in. He withdrew from last year’s U.S. Championships due to the hamstring, leaving him to watch the World Championships on TV. He hasn’t raced in a European Diamond League meet since 2012.
“If I can just put together a good six months of training, I think I’ll be golden,” said Bailey, who works under coach John Smith in Southern California. “Until then, I’ve got to take care of the leg.”
Bailey said in New York that he was healthy, “but how well I’ll run, we’ll see.” He covered 100m in 10.29 seconds, into a 1.9m/s headwind. He was fifth, but the fastest American.
Bailey doesn’t remember much about that Olympic relay. He’s watched it a handful of times.
Plus, who knows how much longer he will own that silver medal, given Gay’s doping suspension. Nobody has asked him for it yet. He declined comment on Gay and the uncertain situation.
Those seconds in London, when Bailey stood near the Bolt spotlight, are vanishing in those multiple ways. But Bailey hasn’t disappeared and is quick to remind of two years ago
“Nobody expected me to make the team [in 2012], and I did,” Bailey said. “You can’t really guarantee anything.””