Someone small began the second Saturday in Atlanta with an act so twisted that it threatened to suck every warm feeling of these Games into a joyless black hole. Who could think of anything else after the bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park? How could mere games matter anymore?
Donovan Bailey made them matter. That night the world-champion Canadian sprinter, who has long been overshadowed in his country by a disgraced Ben Johnson, became a star. While everyone was looking to Namibia's Frankie Fredericks or Britain's Linford Christie or the U.S.'s Dennis Mitchell, Bailey blasted through the thick night air of Olympic Stadium, past the finest 100-meter field in history, and crossed the finish line in a world-record of 9.84. As he looked back to see his time, his mouth opened in astonishment and joy, and he brought back what had been taken away.
Understand, everything about the 100 is too flashy, overhyped, large, and that is precisely what was needed that day. This was not a time for sweet gymnasts or another modest swimmer. Nothing distills the Olympics to its essence like the men's 100: Sprinters carry themselves with self-importance, and the scale of the event suits their outsized arrogance.
This lineup was like a scene from a madhouse—Mitchell, ring in his eyebrow, face a paroxysm of twitches, nattering on and on to himself. Bailey and Ato Boldon of Trinidad and Tobago, eyes closed and breathing deeply. Christie standing as still as Michelangelo's David, face blank. All of them certain this was the most important thing in the world.
Of course, it was just a glorified foot race. Christie false started twice and refused to leave the track. He and Boldon nearly came to blows. Of course, it was absurd, but to see men so consumed by a challenge served a cleansing need.
They cared so much, and because of that you were carried along. You forgot the morning. You couldn't help but think, This matters too.