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The Book On: Men's Sprints

Outside magazine, August 1996

The Book On: Men's Sprints

Can anyone beat Donovan Bailey, track-god-come-lately?
By Mark Jannot

It must be hard for other sprinters not to pigeonhole Donovan Bailey, 28, as just another track-world dilettante. A native Jamaican who immigrated to Canada at age 13, Bailey restricted his collegiate sporting life to basketball, excelled as a student, and then became a successful stockbroker. Running was merely a hobby--until he attended the 1990 Canadian nationals as a spectator. "I thought, 'Hell, I can beat some of those guys,'" Bailey says. He soon started training, but only lackadaisically. In fact, then-LSU assistant track coach Dan Pfaff was so appalled by Bailey's ungainly form at the 1993 world championships that he challenged him to either get focused or give up the sport. Bailey got serious. Within 18 months, after moving to Baton Rouge to train with Pfaff, he set the Canadian 100-meters record and won a gold medal at last year's world championships. With countryman Bruny Surin taking second and no American placing higher than fifth, many saw the race as proof that sprint dominance had suddenly moved north.

Not that the American sprinters are buying into this theory. "We had a drop-off, but our big horses were hurt last year," says Dennis Mitchell, who was sidelined for much of the season. "Bailey had a good year, but it wasn't any better than the years I've had or Leroy [Burrell] has had or Carl [Lewis] has had. Now the Olympics are in our country, and we're going in as underdogs. What better situation can we have?"

Of course, to get there, Mitchell first needed to survive June's U.S. Olympic trials--not an easy task, since he was battling four other proven veterans (Burrell, Lewis, Jon Drummond, and Mike Marsh) for three spots. The results weren't in at press time, but Glen McMicken of national governing body USA Track & Field was already picking a surprising, if very familiar, name to win it all: "Assuming Lewis makes the team, I'm going to predict him for the gold. He sees the Olympics and says, 'What a way to go out.'"

Compared to the murky 100, handicapping the remaining events takes little foresight. Michael Johnson should easily achieve the unprecedented feat of winning both the 200 and 400 meters. In fact, the United States owns the 400, with world-record-holder Butch Reynolds, former Olympic champions Quincy Watts and Steve Lewis, and perhaps five others capable of medaling. But if Americans own the event, Johnson owns the Americans: He hasn't lost in the 400 since 1989. In the 200, Johnson does have a legitimate rival in Marsh, who won the gold in '92. But Marsh has beaten Johnson only once in head-to-head competition.

In the 110-meter hurdles, look for Americans Mark Crear and Allen Johnson to sweep gold and silver. Meanwhile, in the 400-meter hurdles, Derrick Adkins and Danny Harris of the United States should jockey with Sammy Matete of Zambia for the top three spots.

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