TORONTO — Forget about Canada's federal election. The "big race" Canadians are waiting for is the grudge match between two world-class sprinters: Canada's Donovan Bailey and America's Michael Johnson.
This one-on-one, hyped-up, 150-meter sprint is scheduled for Sunday in Toronto's SkyDome with the winner getting $1.5 million - or about $30,000 per step. The "loser" gets a paltry $500,000.
An assortment of other track stars from around the world will also compete in their own head-to-head matches, window dressing for the main event. All are paid performers in an odd hybrid of track and field and P.T. Barnum. (At press time, an ailing Bailey knee threatened his running status for Sunday's race.)
Apparently this event is the culmination of a small verbal feud between Johnson and Bailey that was first seized on by news outlets and then nurtured by promoters - ever since Canadian honor was offended after the Olympic Games last year.
As all Canadians know, but few Americans seem to remember, it was Bailey who won the gold medal in the 100-meter sprint at the summer Olympics in Atlanta last year. He was also on the Canadian 4x100-meter relay team that won the gold.
Canadians savored that sweet summer victory over the Americans, putting behind them at long last the ignominious Ben Johnson sprinter-on-steroids affair. But the triumph was short, and trouble flared after the Olympics.
Michael Johnson's United States promoters began to advertise him as the "world's fastest man" shortly after the Games. Johnson had, of course, won gold medals in both the 200-meter and 400-meter sprints. But, as Bailey pointed out to Canadian reporters, it was not the all-important 100-meter sprint.
A long line of Americans won the 100-meter gold before Bailey and all were graced with the unofficial title of "world's fastest man." Naturally, that honor should go to the man who wins the 100-meter sprint, he said.
"I guess it's the ignorance of Americans not understanding that people are better than them - it's starting to become funny," Johnson told the Toronto Star after the Associated Press voted Johnson athlete of the year.
To Canadians, it was quite obvious what was happening beneath the headlines: The Americans were changing the rules to suit themselves and robbing Canada of its rightful claim to fame.
As boxing and professional wrestling promoters have long known, nothing sells like a grudge match. So it was only a matter of time before a group of Canadian promoters realized there was money to be made over a sports feud between the two countries.
The "Challenge of Champions," as the World Wide Web site (www.worldsfastestman.com) calls it, had by early this month sold 22,000 tickets and was shooting to pull 40,000 into the dome at $11 to $33 per ticket. Also on the web: Bailey-versus-Johnson sweatshirts at $36 and T-shirts at $18 each.
Still more revenue should roll in from television since CBS will be carrying the event live. Organizers expect six networks to broadcast the Bailey-Johnson match to 50 countries. If this event makes big money, promoters say to expect future one-on-one track contests.
"The SkyDome will have the same type of electricity as an Ali-Frazier prize fight," says Rob Correa, vice president of programming for CBS. "We are very excited and proud to play a bigger role in track and field."
Both Bailey and Johnson have dutifully done their part in press conferences and media interviews where they have taunted one another like professional boxers.
"Michael is not even the fastest man in Texas," says Bailey, who trains in Texas, as does Johnson.
Johnson's response: "He's been doing all the bragging. Now we'll have to put it on the line.... This is a great event for track, and I'm ready now to confirm the title of world's fastest human."
The day after the big event, Canadians will return to more ordinary concerns, such as voting in a federal election that may determine the future course of the nation.