It's a complicated legacy. But man, oh man, wasn't that victory on July 27, 1996 in Atlanta awesome? It made most Canadians forget about Johnson being disqualified in Seoul. The win seven days later in the 4x100 relay, was the perfect end to a great Games for Canada. Beating the U.S. on the final night of the track and field competition was a haha-we-showed-you moment from north of the border. Esmie, Gilbert, Surin and Bailey also happened to cap off a Summer Games where Canada won 27 medals, its best in a non-boycott year. Five years earlier, few would have guessed Bailey would put Canada on top of the track world. He had opted to pursue a business career and play basketball at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont., his hometown. In his early 20s, a nettle tugged at his heart. He wondered if he was wasting his athletic potential. "I was working in Corporate Canada and I was doing all right," Bailey told The Hour in 2009. "But I was burnt out ... Long hours, a lot of clients. I just wanted to get away. Track and field was sort of like the elimination thing. I just wanted to go and do something. Exercise my brain and my body and kind of gravitate to that."
Athletics Canada more or less whiffed on developing Bailey's raw talent. After he committed to sprinting, Canada didn't take him to either the 1991 worlds or 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He didn't run in the relay at the '93 worlds in Stuttgart, Germany. Through Gilbert, he met a coach named Dan Pfaff who saw someone who had the physical specs for sprinting, the 99.9th-percentile distribution of muscle mass that helps someone be capable of running 27 miles per hour. Pfaff remade Bailey.
"He's got it!" CBC's Don Wittman told a relieved nation. "A new world record for Donovan Bailey and a gold medal!"
[Video: Surprise sprinter to watch]It was Bailey's moment and he owned it. Having seen Johnson's progress from Jamaican immigrant to Canadian hero back to Jamaican in the public eye, he tried to keep some of the triumph for himself and his homeland. That created some uneasiness. "It's not even Jamaica sharing," he said at the time. "I'm Jamaican, man. I'm Jamaican first. You gotta understand that's where I'm from. That's home. That you can never take away from me. I'm a Jamaican-born Canadian sprinter." Enter 1996 Michael Johnson, in the role of 1988 Carl Lewis. The casting director was NBC's Bob Costas. Bailey's win came during an Olympics where the host broadcaster's flag-waving was the most blatant ever seen. When the American Michael Johnson obliterated the 200 record in 19.32 seconds — 9.66 per 100 — NBC's Costas pondered aloud whether Johnson should be called the World's Fastest Man. It was ludicrous. It worked, though. As Bailey later put it: "It was a person who knew nothing about track talking about it with a lot of people listening."
Canadians were irate. That indirectly took the spotlight off Bailey. He became what he probably didn't want to be, a politicized athlete.
[Related: Canadian sprinter could make move to CFL]That would also creep in on Esmie, Gilbert, Surin, Bailey and Carlton Chambers (who ran the leadoff in the heats before Esmie did in the final) before the sprint relay. The media attention focused more on whether a long-in-the-tooth Carl Lewis would get a spot on the U.S. team than on who would win. Esmie started quickly. Gilbert, the guts and glue of the relay team, ran a great second leg. Surin, the penultimate runner, threw his hands up in victory as soon as he got the stick to Bailey. Bailey began the anchor leg with about a two-metre lead over the U.S. en route to gold. Beating the U.S. at home hit a nerve. Their triumph came in the same city where the Toronto Blue Jays had become the first Canadian MLB team to win the World Series just four years earlier. Bailey, Esmie, Gilbert and Surin's birthplaces were discussed more than the country they competed for proudly. They were products of Trudeau-era immigration policies, a generation that came to Canada to make a better life while still being proud of the countries they had left. Bailey and Esmie were each from Jamaica. Gilbert was from a single-parent family of six children that left Trinidad and Tobago, while Surin was born in Haiti.
People pounced on it, almost as a way to discredit Canada. Sports Illustrated referred to Esmie, Gilbert, Surin and Bailey as "four transplanted Caribbeans wearing the singlet of Canada." So much for letting Canada have its moment. Perhaps that is where the glory started fading. The country's track-and-field program no longer turns out competitive male sprinters. The legacy is convoluted. The wake of Ben Johnson and the media muckraking in Atlanta created those conditions. There was a demand for a match race. In June 1997, Bailey and Johnson squared off one-on-one in a 150-metre race at Skydome, splitting the difference between their specialties. It was no contest; Johnson pulled up lame at the 110-metre mark. Bailey rubbed it in, even looking back to wave 'come on' at Johnson. "He's just a chicken," Bailey told the CBC, after the race. "He's afraid to lose. I think what we should do is we should really run this race over again, so I can kick his ass one more time." Many Canadians, younger ones who loved dunks and touchdown dances, relished it. Bailey soon apologized to Johnson. The same Canadian media who had toasted Bailey in Atlanta tweaked him for being a poor sport. Columnist Stephen Brunt said it seemed, "so un-Canadian." Bailey and his teammates' era was so short-lived, covering two world championships with Atlanta sandwiched in between, that it all seems like a dream. Perhaps that explains why the country often needs a prod to remember it. Or why organizers of the Olympic torch relay to Vancouver initially forgot to include Bailey until there was a public outcry. It was like he came, washed away the pain of Big Ben, but there was no guarantee of a lasting embrace. Maybe it might take Bailey lighting the Olympic torch in Toronto in 2024 to clear the air. For now, always remember Donovan Bailey gave Canada a moment for the ages that we will never, ever, see again.