Whether it settles the issue of who is the world's fastest man or merely complicates it, the long-awaited race between U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson and Canada's Donovan Bailey takes place Sunday.
After months of verbal jousting and weeks of financial uncertainty, the $2 million race over 150 meters will happen at SkyDome -- roof closed -- on a track that is curved over the first 75 meters and straight at the finish.
Johnson and Bailey -- who both are 29 -- see this race as a possible leap into prominence for a sport plagued by a lack of fan interest, financial problems and many other controversies at any given time. About 600 media members are here, and CBS is televising the event, which will be shown live in 56 countries. (WJZ-13 in Baltimore will air the race; WUSA-9 in Washington will not.)
"Track and field needs help in marketing," Bailey said. "This might be the future. Track meets are not very significant right now, especially in North America."
The Johnson-Bailey clash, which features a five-race undercard, has stirred the nationalistic spirit of the Canadians, more so than their neighbors to the south.
"Canadians are having a great time looking at it as Canadian versus American," Johnson said. "We're not looking at it that way. . . . I'm interested in finding out what the fans want."
Johnson, last year's Olympic gold medalist in the 200 and 400 meters, will start in front of Bailey in the outside lane. A more experienced curve runner, Johnson said he has trained as if for the 200 meters. His coach says he is in the best shape he has ever been this early in the season.
Bailey is considered a better pure runner with a stronger kick than Johnson. Neither runner expressed a preference for the inside lane, so Johnson allowed Bailey to have it. Bailey said he likes the fact he will be able to see Johnson throughout the race, but he will be forced to handle a tighter curve. He said he has trained no differently than if preparing for the 100 meters.
Who will win? When doubled, Bailey's world record time in the 100 meters at the Olympics (9.84 seconds) exceeds Johnson's time in the 200 meters (19.32). Merely doubling Bailey's numbers, however, unfairly adds an extra start to the calculation.
By tradition, the world record holder in the 100 is regarded as the world's fastest man, but Johnson's astonishing performance in the Olympic 200, which broke the previous record by .34 seconds, began a debate.
"I accepted the fact that the fastest man in the world was the winner of the 100 meters," said Ato Boldon, bronze medalist from Trinidad and Tobago, immediately after the 200 in Atlanta. "Now I believe the fastest man is sitting to my left."
Bailey, of course, disagrees. He said that distinction was clearly established during the Atlanta Games.
"He's very consistent at winning either the 200 or 400," Bailey said of Johnson. "I always said I respect him for that fact, but I think the media drummed it into his head that he is the fastest man in the world."
Johnson said he would be glad to wager his $500,000 appearance fee in a winner-takes-all event.
"Not as a side bet," he said. "I would prefer to do it out here in front of everyone, put the $2 million on the line."
In an earlier interview, Bailey said he was unwilling to wager the appearance fee. "Why would I do it?" he said. "This is my job, remember?" "Disappointing," Johnson said, shaking his head. "Disappointing."
Notes: Racing on the undercard will be: Jamaica's Michelle Freeman vs. Sweden's Ludmila Engquist in the 100-meter hurdles; the United States' Lawrence Johnson vs. South Africa's Okkert Brits in the pole vault; the United States' Jackie Joyner-Kersee vs. Germany's Heike Drechsler in the long jump; the United States' Charles Austin vs. Sweden's Patrik Sjoberg in the high jump; and Paralympians Tony Volpentest of the United States and Neil Fuller of Australia in the 100 meters. JOHNSON VS. BAILEY TIME: 5:45 p.m., SkyDome. TV: WJZ-13. PURSE: $1 million to the winner; each participant guaranteed $500,000 appearance fee. AT STAKE: Unofficial title of world's fastest man. TRACK SETUP: 150-meter track starts with 75-meter bend and finishes with 75-meter straightaway; Bailey gets inside lane -- Lane 2, Johnson in Lane 3. RECORDS: Bailey holds 100-meter world record at 9.84 seconds; Johnson holds 200-meter world record at 19.32. Both were set at 1996 Atlanta Olympics. UNOFFICIAL 150-METER RECORD: 14.93, by John Regis, Britain, 1993.