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Former sprinter Bailey expecting big things from Canadian sprinters at Pan Ams

05/28/2015 05:05 EDT | Updated 05/28/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - Former Olympic 100-metre champion Donovan Bailey knows just how important the support of a home crowd can be at a big event.

He used it to his advantage in one of the more infamous races in sprinting history.

Bailey, on hand Thursday for a Toronto Pan Am Games podium unveiling at Nathan Phillips Square, recalled his 1997 showdown with American Michael Johnson in a rare 150-metre race at the then-SkyDome. A partisan crowd cheered Bailey to victory in a battle to determine the world's fastest man.

"It was a victorious day, a day etched in the memory of Canadians that I'm reminded of every time I walk out in public," Bailey said. "A time when we were dominant in the sport. A time when we were not the stepbrother, we were the king."

Bailey, from nearby Oakville, Ont., had won Olympic gold in the 100 metres a year earlier at the 1996 Atlanta Games while Johnson took the 200-metre crown. Bailey also helped the Canadian team to Olympic relay gold.

The current crop of Canadian sprinters is looking to get to that level and there is some great potential in the program. Bailey said rising star Andre De Grasse has really caught his attention.

"He's extremely talented and he's hungry," Bailey said. "He's also in the NCAA system now (at USC) so he's essentially in one of the best grassroots systems for sprinters."

The Canadian roster for the Games will be unveiled next month but De Grasse is a virtual lock for the squad. He recently broke the Canadian record in the 200 metres and ran the 100 in 9.97 seconds, the fastest time clocked by a Canadian in 16 years.

"He won in junior college, he won indoors at NCAA — so he's not afraid of people," Bailey said. "Which kind of reminds me of myself."

Nearly two decades have passed since that 150-metre race, when the Canadian jumped out to an early lead and left a limping Johnson behind when the American slowed down with a leg injury. There was some trash talk and hard feelings at the time but Bailey said "he's totally cool" with Johnson now and has nothing but fond memories.

"It reminds me of good times," Bailey said. "It's always been just fun and games in there. It was a good fun day for the 55,000 people who came and watched me win."

Attendance at the venue, located a few blocks down the road from Thursday's unveiling, wasn't quite that high but there was tremendous energy in the stadium that day. The Pan Am venue — officially dubbed the CIBC Pan Am/Parapan Am Athletics Stadium — will be much more intimate with a capacity of up to 12,000.

"When you can look into the stands and you can see family and friends and teammates and coaches, I think it makes it a little easier," Bailey said.

With De Grasse's hometown of Markham, Ont., just a short drive away from the Pan Am venue, it should be an electric atmosphere for one of the showcase events of the Games.

"He trains and competes in a pressurized system every day," Bailey said. "So I think that it'll be easy for him. He's just got to stay relaxed, run his race and bring back a gold medal and hopefully a nice Canadian record. It'd be good."

Bailey's world record in 1996 was 9.84 seconds. Jamaica's Usain Bolt holds the current mark of 9.58.

The Pan Am Games will be held July 10-26. The Parapan Am Games are set for Aug. 7-15.

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