She had been staring at him for most of the flight, studying this vaguely familiar face to which she could attach no name. There are thousands of flights carrying hundreds of thousands of briefcases every day between Toronto and Montreal, planes full of men who look as if they are going to show samples or take depositions, but this man wasn't one of them. He was chatting into someone's tape recorder, answering questions in engaging bursts. He was special. Important. Anyone could see that.
"Excuse me," the woman whispered as the passengers filed off the plane. "Am I supposed to know him?"
The greatest titles in the universe are heavyweight champion and world's fastest man. They represent the pinnacles of two simple, primordial pastimes, fighting and sprinting. No moment in sports is as delicious with anticipation as when the champion threads his way to the ring—unless it's a stadium going library-silent waiting for the gun of an Olympic 100-meter final.
Mike Tyson is the heavyweight champion, and he can start a parade anywhere in the world by walking around the block. Donovan Bailey, the special passenger on that flight to Toronto, is the world's fastest man, the 100-meter world champion. He starts no parades. He leaves a shallow footprint.
Aren't we supposed to know him?
"If I lived in Europe," Bailey says, "I'd be sick of seeing my own face on TV, and I'd be worth millions."
But Bailey lives in Oakville, a bedroom community in suburban Toronto. His country is now the fastest nation on earth. Strange. Canada used to fancy itself the Great Slow North, an earnest but lumbering Dudley Do-Right sort of land. These days it is the home of Bailey, world 100-meter silver medalist Bruny Surin and the world champion 4x100-meter relay team. Keeping such fast company has its perils, of course. Canada once fell in love with a 100-meter hero, a muscular, monosyllabic champion named Ben Johnson, who broke the heart of the nation when the gold medal he won and world-record time he ran were taken away after he tested positive for steroids at the 1988 Olympics.
Maybe Canada isn't ready to love again. Bailey and Surin raced at indoor meets in three cities across Canada last January. There was only one full house in the series (in Saskatoon), even though the second race was in Hamilton, 20 minutes door-to-door from Bailey's condo if he is driving his Mazda RX7. The gold and silver medalists from last summer's world championships were running at home in an Olympic year, and 6,000 fans showed up in an arena that holds three times as many. It was as if the world's fastest man were running next door and his neighbors drew the drapes.
If life were fair, the Donovan Bailey story would start with how he was born in 1967 in Manchester, Jamaica, or how he came to Canada in 1981 or how he ran track to meet girls ("Never a fat girl on the track, except maybe the shot put") or how his yearbook said he would be either a 1992 Olympian or manager of a Club Med, or with some other silly biographical signpost along the road to the summit of the sprint world.
Life isn't fair, so the story starts in an Oakville bar where Bailey was waiting for the Olympic 100-meter final on a September night in 1988. This race wasn't simply a living-room event in Canada. This was 10 seconds' worth of national glue, something people felt they needed to share. This was the heavyweight championship: Ben Johnson vs. Carl Lewis. The bar was packed.