Donovan Bailey won the 100 Meters in the Olympics for Canada – One of the keys to being a great sprinter, Donovan Bailey was saying recently, can seem like a paradox.
While the amateur’s urge is to try to run faster by trying harder, all clenched fists and gritted teeth, the wisdom of the great coaches demands the enlightened athlete take it easier.
In a sport where tension is the enemy — because the mechanics of efficient sprinting rely more on natural reflex than grinding effort — the secret isn’t harder labor. It’s relaxation.
“In the middle of the heat, in the middle of all the crazy stuff happening around you, it ultimately comes down to your ability to relax,” Bailey said.
It is a detail that takes a look back on Bailey’s seminal win in the 100 metres in Atlanta in 1996 seem all the more remarkable. The 25th anniversary of Bailey’s crowning race is Tuesday.
And as much as his mouth-agape moment of jubilation remains one of the great images in the history of Canadian sport, it’s easy to forget that his victory came in the midst of a turbulent time, both for Bailey and for the Games — one that didn’t exactly seem like an ideal backdrop for the kind of clear-headed focus and tension-free fluidity his world-record time of 9.84 seconds demanded.
Less than 24 hours before he crouched within the starters’ blocks for the largest individual moment of his career, a bomb had gone off at Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, killing one, injuring 111 and casting a pall over the event. It wasn’t the sole grim shadow that loomed.
For all Bailey’s success therein era — he came into the Games because the reigning world champion — news of his exploits often came attached to insinuations his rise was fuelled by performance-enhancing drugs, a suspicion little question driven by countryman Ben Johnson’s fall from grace in Seoul eight years earlier, but one Bailey insists was rooted in “systemic racism.”
Beyond all that, on the track, all wasn’t well. In Bailey’s final pre-Olympic tune-up race in France, a touch over fortnight before the Olympics, he suffered an injury that threatened to dash his Atlanta dream.
While Bailey publicly downplayed the extent of his condition at the time, Mark Lindsay, Bailey’s long-time friend and chiropractor, said in an exceedingly recent interview that a post-race MRI revealed damage to the rectus femoris — a muscle within the upper thigh, which was torn near where it connects to the hip. Let’s just say the prognosis wasn’t golden.
“The standard medical protocol would are for him to not run,” Lindsay said. “Or to grant him an effort of cortisone and take your chances.”
Said Dan Pfaff, Bailey’s coach: “Based on past experience, an injury like that’s usually game over.” To wit, when Bailey got off the plane from Europe to return to his training base in Austin, Tex., “he couldn’t even walk,” said Pfaff.
“For three days I couldn’t walk,” Bailey remembered.
As grim because it looked, Bailey said he had faith within the team he’d assembled to expertly shepherd him thereto Georgia start line. Chief among them was Lindsay, whose work getting Bailey first walking, then winning, helped popularize a way of sports-injury rehabilitation he helped pioneer alongside fellow chiropractor Mark Scappaticci, who also worked on Bailey within the pre-Olympic window.
The holistic approach integrated the treatment of the injury with the training for the game, mixing chiropractic techniques with traditional physiotherapy, to not mention various kinds of acupuncture, massage and soft-tissue work. If traditional medicine preferred siloed specialties, this was a Swiss army knife approach — one that’s now common in pro sports but certainly wasn’t in 1996.
In the years since, Lindsay has become a rehab specialist to the celebrities. He’s worked on the surgically repaired knees of Tiger Woods and Connor McDavid. He’s treated Peyton Manning, Sidney Crosby, Maria Sharapova — and also the list goes on. and every one those referrals, he said, ultimately stem from Bailey.
“It was a game-changer. Donovan’s experience in ’96 changed the mindset of the way to treat acute injuries,” Lindsay said. “I’m not saying that to blow myself up. I’m saying that we learned things from Donovan’s injury that have now helped to form a replacement paradigm in medical specialty.”
Working closely with Lindsay was Pfaff, whom Bailey calls “the greatest and smartest guy in track and field.” Pfaff is now a go-to consultant favoured by vast swaths of the sports world, from NFL teams to mixed martial artists to pro golfers, for his wisdom on everything from training for speed to treating and preventing injuries. Among the outside-the-box training strategies Pfaff prescribed for Bailey pre-Atlanta: Ten-second bursts of one-legged sprints done on a stationary bike.
“It was a workout that allowed my body to remain fast and permit my systema nervosum to remain primed without risking further injury,” Bailey said.
Bailey remembers his pre-Atlanta training regimen involving as many as six hours on a daily basis of therapy. there have been drills drained a flotation suit in a very natatorium to attenuate the load on his joints. There was a strict concentrate on nutrition and a significant reliance on nature’s underrated recovery tool — copious sleep. Eventually, there was track work. But there was never certainty.
“It was trial and error. each day in practice, you tried to push it a touch bit farther,” Lindsay said. “Because the reality is, with an injury like that, you don’t really have all the answers. And you’ll be able to easily fail.”
Bailey, of course, didn’t fail. Not that there weren’t concerns. If Bailey had a foul habit as a sprinter, it had been an inclination to overstride — to increase too far together with his lead foot. Overstriding, with a bum thigh muscle, could have landed Bailey within the fetal position.
“It was crucial that he ran in restraint,” Lindsay said.
And once Bailey was on the bottom in Atlanta, it’s not like there weren’t close calls. In his first Olympic heat, Bailey was slow out of the blocks — “He was really hesitant to push it,” Lindsay said — so Bailey’s team held its collective breath as their man used a late surge to qualify for the following round in a very glacial 10.24 seconds.
In the lead-up to the ultimate, Lindsay said he remembers Bailey being unusually tense. So it helped, in some ways, that the race was preluded by a series of false starts, including two that disqualified Linford Christie, the reigning Olympic champion. As Pfaff has noticed, fast starts were never Bailey’s forte, and false starts put the more consistently adept starters nervy.
“It also reasonably broke the strain,” Lindsay said.
After the gun, Bailey unfurled what Pfaff termed an “average” start. it absolutely was standard operating procedure for Bailey to seek out himself in fifth or sixth place at the 40-metre mark of an enormous race, and this one was no different. But the image improved quickly.
“From 50 to 70 metres, Donovan could hit speeds other guys struggle to hit. And he could hold on to those speeds longer,” Pfaff said. “And therein race in Atlanta, the section from 50 to 70 metres, that was probably pretty much as good as he’d ever done.”
Therein lies another of sprinting’s counterintuitive truths. within the closing steps of a 100-metre sprint, even elite runners are decelerating. Bailey became the fastest man within the world partially because he had a knack for being slower to hamper than his competitors. Around 60 metres, Bailey was third behind Trinidad’s Ato Boldon and Namibia’s Frankie Fredericks. By 70 metres, Bailey said, “I literally knew I’d won.”
He won, in part, because of what Pfaff called a “near miracle” rehab job. And he won, too, because he displayed real mastery of sprinting’s tricky paradox. within the heat of Lane 6, with 83,000 fans at a boil and Olympic gold on the road, Bailey said he reminded himself to relax.
“I knew it wasn’t the beginning I wanted. But I also knew that if I panicked it wasn’t visiting be a decent day,” he said. “So my responsibility was to breathe, relax and just retreat to into what I do. I knew that middle 40 metres was visiting be my race.”
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