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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MORE: Justin Gatlin: I’m still the man to beat at U.S. Championships

Japanese pair edges Americans for historic Grand Prix Final figure skating title

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara
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Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the biggest title ever for a Japanese figure skating pair, taking the Grand Prix Final and consolidating their status as the world’s top active team.

Miura and Kihara, last season’s world silver medalists, barely outscored world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in Turin, Italy, in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate to win the six-pair event that is a preview of March’s worlds.

The Japanese totaled 214.58 points, distancing the Americans by a mere 1.3 points after Frazier erred on both of their side-by-side jumping passes in the free skate. Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze.

“We had a very late start to our season than initially planned, so as we have been performing at each event, I see us getting stronger, improving things,” said Frazier, who with Knierim had their best short program and free skate scores of the autumn.

Knierim and Frazier didn’t decide to continue competing together this season until July.

“I feel a little personally disappointed tonight just for myself for my jumps,” Frazier continued. “I was a little all over the place and, normally, I can execute better, so I feel a little bad, but I’m very proud of us overall. We’ve done a great job of improving each competition and looking forward to the second half of the season where we can start tapping into our best skating.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura and Kihara, who partnered in June 2019 and train in Ontario, both waited with trepidation for their final score to be posted, worried that each’s separate mistake on jumps might cost them the title. When they learned they won, both burst into tears.

“This was the first time in eight years that I made a mistake with a Salchow, so I thought we might not get a good score, and it would be my fault,” Kihara said.

Miura and Kihara entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world by best scores this season ahead of Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Last season, Miura and Kihara became the second Japanese pair to make a Grand Prix podium and to earn a world championships medal. Their ascension helped Japan win its first Olympic figure skating team event medal in February (a bronze that could be upgraded to gold pending the Kamila Valiyeva case).

In Grand Prix Final history, Japan had won 11 gold medals and 40 total medals, all in singles, before this breakthrough.

Knierim and Frazier, already the first U.S. pair to compete in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, became the first U.S. pair to win a Grand Prix Final medal. The Final has been held annually since 1996, though it was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miura and Kihara and Knierim and Frazier ascended to the top of the sport while the top five teams from the Olympics from Russia and China have not competed internationally since the Winter Games.

All Russian skaters are ineligible for international competition due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t enter last March’s worlds and did not compete in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Later Friday, world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan led the women’s short program with 75.86 points, 1.28 ahead of countrywoman Mai Mihara. American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, was fifth of six skaters in her Grand Prix Final debut.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier topped the rhythm dance with 85.93 points, edging Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates by .44. Both couples are bidding for the biggest international title of their careers. None of the Olympic medalists competed internationally this fall.

The Grand Prix Final ends Saturday with the men’s and women’s free skates and free dance, all live on Peacock.

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A Winter Olympic medal still being decided, 10 months later

Fanny Smith, Daniela Maier
It's still unknown whether Fanny Smith (green) or Daniela Maier (blue) is the Olympic ski cross bronze medalist. (Getty)
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There is a second Winter Olympic medal result still in question, 10 months after the Games.

While the figure skating team event results are still unknown due to the Kamila Valiyeva case, the bronze medal in women’s ski cross is also in dispute.

Originally, Swiss Fanny Smith crossed the finish line in third place in the four-woman final at the Winter Games in February. Upon review by the International Ski Federation (FIS) jury, she was minutes later demoted to fourth place after making contact with German Daniela Maier near the end of the course. Maier, who originally was fourth, was upgraded to bronze.

“I tried to be OK with the fourth place. I was very disappointed, I have to say, [then] the jury was like this,” Maier said then. “I am really sorry for Fanny that it’s like this right now. … The jury decided like this, so accept it and be happy with the medal.”

Smith and the Swiss ski federation appealed. FIS reinstated Smith as the bronze medalist nine days after the race and six days after the Closing Ceremony. A FIS appeals commission met four times and reviewed video and written documentation for several hours before deciding that “the close proximity of the racers at that moment resulted in action that was neither intentional or avoidable.”

But that wasn’t the end. The case ended up reportedly going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings are usually accepted as final. The CAS process is ongoing, European media reported this week.

CAS has not responded to a request for comment. A FIS contact said Friday, “There is currently no update to provide in regards to the bronze medal in ski cross. Should there be any update, we will inform you.”

Smith said there should be news soon regarding the case, according to Blick.

Maier still has the bronze medal at her home and enjoys looking at it, according to German media, which also reported that the German ski federation expects Maier to win the case and keep the medal. Smith and Maier spoke extensively about it in recent training sessions and cleared things up. Maier said the best outcome would be bronze medals for both of them, according to the report.

For now, FIS lists Smith as the bronze medalist. The IOC lists Maier as the bronze medalist.

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