“I have no clue how to sit still”: A Q&A with legendary sprinter Donovan Bailey
Canada’s greatest runner of all time has a new memoir. Here, he talks about overcoming racism, whether anyone will ever catch Usain Bolt and what it really means to be a proud Canadian
Most Canadians remember where they were on July 27, 1996, when sprinting sensation Donovan Bailey won the 100-metre final at the Atlanta Olympics, setting a new world-record time of 9.84 seconds. The Jamaican-born, Oakville-raised sprinter was thrilling on the track and magnetic off it. Now the 55-year-old entrepreneur and philanthropist has a new memoir titled Undisputed: A Champion’s Life, chronicling it all. We recently caught up with Bailey (not literally, of course) and asked him why he wrote the book, how track and field has changed since his glory days, and whether anybody will ever run faster than Usain Bolt.
Congrats on the book. Now that you’ve put down the pen, what’s your day-to-day like?
You would think I’d have lots of time on my hands with the book out, but I’m busy. I spend a lot of time with my two kids, who are 27 and 17, and I host a running podcast with my friend Jason Portuondo, a former Sportsnet anchor. Aside from that, I’m pretty active in my business ventures: I’m involved in the shoe company Biopods, and I have my own hot sauce. I’m also an analyst for the CBC, and I’m deeply involved in my charity, Pass the Baton Canada.
In other words, top speed.
I have no clue how to sit still. Sometimes people ask me, Aren’t you tired? The answer is yes. But being tired is better than being bored. When you’re a retired athlete, you’ll never recreate the adrenalin rush of competition, so you have to set new objectives and pursue success elsewhere.
At this point in your life, what do you consider success?
Success is personal, but I hope this book teaches people that chasing big goals is a good thing. As an athlete, I’ve learned how to give 100 per cent of myself to a craft and master it. Later in life, I did my best to transfer that mindset to new pursuits. That’s the main theme of the book: whatever it is you want in life, go work at it and don’t be afraid of standing out.
Were you ever afraid to succeed?
There used to be an expectation for Canadian athletes to be church mice, the quiet ones in the corner. That did not jibe with me because my parents taught me to speak my mind, even when it offended people. When I was competing against the best in the world, I wasn’t just happy to be there. I told myself, I belong here, and I’m going to crush these guys. So I wanted to impart that on my fellow Canadians—Black kids, white kids, everyone—and help them develop a sense of confidence. I think Canada has that now. When I see Drake repping the Raptors, I think, That’s a proud Canadian.
You got a lot of blowback for an interview in Sports Illustrated where you said that Canada might not be as accepting of a Black champion. Do today’s superstars face similar scrutiny?
I took a lot of bullets back in the day. Everyone thinks they know my story in track, but a big part of my success came when I learned to deal with negative media narratives. There weren’t many Black stars like me at the time. I was criticized for what I looked like, who I was and because I didn’t fit the mould of the typical quiet Canadian. Today, athletes are freer to be themselves. Social media actually helped with that. Despite the crazy conspiracy theories and outrage those platforms can generate, they at least taught us that every human being has a voice.
Is that why you waited until now to write a book?
Absolutely. We have a long way to go, but I think that most Canadians want to have honest conversations on racism or stereotypes. But prejudice still exists, and this book also aims to help people shoot for success regardless.
How else has track and field changed since 1996?
We are all so connected now. When I raced overseas, we had to fax the results to reporters ourselves. Now, everything is filmed and instantaneous. It has really made track and field more popular. Technology is also completely changing our sport: the shoes are better, the track surfaces are faster and training methods are far more sophisticated. It’s leading to athletes running better and better times, and that’s exciting.
Your personal 100-metre best is 9.84 seconds. If you were in your peak 28-year-old form right now, wearing carbon-plated racing shoes on a spring-loaded track, do you think you could top Usain Bolt’s world record of 9.58 seconds?
My coach, Dan Pfaff, told me that, with my speed, I could have run somewhere around 9.4 or 9.5 seconds in this era. That is not what I say; that’s what he says—but, hey, I’ll take it. He might be right: we had plastic shoes with nails screwed into the bottoms, and we ran on concrete surfaces with a tiny bit of sprayed rubber on top. There is no doubt that my contemporaries, like Carl Lewis and Linford Christie, would run faster now. How much faster? Who knows.
When will someone run faster than Usain Bolt?
I can’t see Bolt’s record being beaten in my lifetime. He is a once-in-a-generation athlete. That being said, I also never thought I would see someone run as fast as Bolt has. So I could be wrong again. His records will eventually be broken, I suppose. Bolt has sons; I have sons. We’ll see.
Be honest: When was the last time you watched your glorious Atlanta race?
This summer. At the Canadian championships, an athlete wanted some pointers, so we watched a video of my race and a video of one of his.
Are you a fan of any young runners in particular?
Noah Lyles of the United States is a phenomenal talent, but his countryman Erriyon Knighton, as well as Botswana’s Letsile Tebogo, are strong rivals for the 200-metre. Tebogo reminds me of a young Bolt, because he has no clue how good he is. The 100-metre, meanwhile, is wide open. I hope Andre De Grasse will be back in world-championship form, as he usually is. On the women’s side, I like Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson of Jamaica, Marie-Josée Ta-Lou of Ivory Coast and Sha’Carri Richardson of the States.
If you ever take a break, where in Toronto would you hang out to watch races?
You might find me at Vintage Conservatory, a wine club in Yorkville, or at Clio, a social club on King West, spending time with friends.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.