There are people who look at Bailey and wonder. When he runs, he is not smooth like Lewis or Frankie Fredericks of Namibia. He is not conspicuously powerful like Britain's Linford Christie. Sure, he won the worlds, but 17 days earlier he hadn't even made the finals in Oslo.
"There are knowledgeable track people who think Göteborg was a fluke," says Dan Pfaff, a University of Texas assistant who coaches Bailey. "Call someone in England. They'll tell you the real sprinter, Linford, was hurt." Even though Bailey set his first world record this year, in the indoor 50 meters, some doubt he will win in Atlanta because his form can't hold for four rounds of sprinting.
Bailey craves neatness, order, organization—"Donovan will refold the towels to make sure the creases are in the same place," says his companion, Michelle Mullin—but he can be a mess over 100 meters. Sometimes he covers the distance in 48 strides; other times he needs 51 or 52. Because of a neurological disorder in his left hip, he strides farther with his right leg than with his left. The imbalance sometimes causes him to wobble out of the blocks. He might arch his spine or lift his head. The only man under 10 seconds at the worlds looked like someone dashing for the last chopper out of Saigon.
"Look at tape of the worlds," Bailey says. "I skate out of the blocks. My head is up. My back is arched. I'm O.K. from 30 [meters] to 70, but I scream at that point because I start losing it. Sprinting is power, explosion. It's like dunking a basketball. Göteborg was me coming down the lane for a two-handed tomahawk dunk and then slipping to the side of the basket and doing a one-hander. It's like, Oh, well."
The basketball analogy is not to be taken lightly; that sport is Bailey's first love. He has a scar on his right eyebrow from banging his head on the rim. Bailey claims he has a 52-inch vertical leap—no doubt flying over Babe, the Blue Ox, on his way to the hoop—but friends say 42 inches is about right. Bailey played one season at Sheridan College in Oakville, where it became clear he would never make his mark on the world as a 6-foot power forward. But he had other plans, lots of them. He set himself up as a marketing and investment consultant. By 22 he owned a house and had paid cash for a Porsche 911 convertible.
"I could have left high school and run track right away, but that wasn't what I wanted," Bailey says, "I wanted a nice house, money, fast cars. I was taught to work real hard, to work on my own. When I got the material things I wanted and turned back to sprinting, I think it worked against me. Coaches said I had a bad attitude, that I didn't have a work ethic. I think they resented me. I was a 22-year-old with a Porsche, and they were 35-year-old men driving station wagons."
Bailey wasn't on grand terms with Athletics Canada, his sport's domestic governing body, either. He grew angry when he was left off Canada's teams for the 1991 worlds and the 1992 Olympics. He made the 1993 worlds, in Stuttgart, only to be dropped from the relay, a decision that left Bailey grousing to anyone in earshot. Pfaff happened to be in earshot. The two of them leaned against the fence at the Stuttgart practice track—Bailey griping while Pfaff (who was then coaching at LSU and working with Gilbert, a friend of Bailey's since high school) listened. Pfaff finally told him, "You could be one of the best," and invited him to Baton Rouge.
The world is lousy with 10.36 sprinters—Bailey had never run a faster legal time—but Pfaff could look beyond the flapping mouth and see the rest of the package. There was the proper distribution of muscle mass, the balance between quadriceps and hamstrings and the incredible levers in those impossibly long legs. Bailey looks like he has been constructed from spare parts. He wears a size-46 jacket but has a 28-inch waist and a 34-inch inseam. When he gets up from a chair, he does it in sections.
In March 1994, Bailey arrived at LSU prepared to give track one final shot. If it didn't work out, he figured, he would manage the real estate investments he holds with his brother, O'Neil. Pfaff had him sprint 60 meters and then shooed him off to the weight room to lift with a javelin thrower. Laverne Eve cleaned his clock.