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

Getty Images
0 Comments

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.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

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