Twenty years ago, Donovan Bailey, Bruny Surin, Glenroy Gilbet and Robert Esmie made Canadian history, winning the 4 x 100 metre gold medal at the Olympic Games in Atlanta. It came exactly one week after Donovan Bailey won the 100-metre final in world record time. The Americans had won 14 of 18 prior Olympic gold medals in the event.
Two decades later, their time of 37.69 is still a Canadian record. Here’s how the four men who brought home gold remember their race.
Although Canada had a strong team, they struggled early on in Atlanta. The relay is about both speed and chemistry. The team worked through relay mechanics and interpersonal issue before they found success.
Glenroy Gilbert: If you know anything about sprinters, they are barely alive at 9 a.m. So we struggled a bit. We almost got disqualified in the final exchange just became of rhythm and timing. There was a miscue that happened between Bruny and Donovan that almost ended up costing us that race. But we went back after that and regrouped and came back in the semifinals and were a much better group.
Bruny Surin: Donovan had a tendency to look at the back, and I said don’t look, trust me, I’m going to be there. When I say up I’m going to give you the stick, don’t you worry.
Gilbert: It wasn’t always an easy thing. We fought and argued beforehand but what you saw by the end was a team that was connected and ready on the field of play.
Donovan Bailey: I was really hard on the guys. I had huge expectations. When we get together now we can laugh about the times when I was a little hard. But we live on forever as champions.
Surin: That’s why our team did so well there. We were tight. We said what needed to be said. We weren’t going to say one thing but then actually feel another; we were going to say the truth.
Robert Esmie: I remember one of the practices. Glenroy wasn’t getting the baton in a manner he was supposed to get it and I just called it out. I said, Listen Glenroy, I’m going to speak to you man to man. I know I can pass the baton in my sleep. I sleep with a baton. I know where your hand will be every time. So let’s correct it and be focused. I said my peace; we never had an issue passing the baton.
Gilbert: Back then we were fierce competitors. We were friends to say hello but get us on an open 100 or 200, we are trying to kill each other. We had to put that away when it came to the relay and put the best group on the track.
Esmie was on the team for the relay as he did not make the 100-metre qualification. Carlton Chambers was initially chosen to run the first leg of the race but because he was carrying hamstring, groin and abdominal ailments after running the 200-metre heats, Esmie was subbed in.
Esmie: That was a very difficult situation for me to watch. I was running the fastest times after the trials. To go through the warm-ups with the guys it was like the knife was turned in my heart. It hurt. I looked up to the sky and said, “Jesus, I’m going to leave it to you and let you rectify the situation.”
Gilbert: After the semifinal we were lying on the massage table after our strides, and we started talking, Bruny, myself, and Donovan. We were trying to figure out how we were so behind the U.S. and how were we not running under 38 seconds. When we got the readings after the heats we realized the problem was [Carlton] was running really slow. So it was a matter of having a conversation with him and finding out that he was hurt and he was running with some degree of pain.
Once we knew that, we could either stay with [Carlton] or we can go with the unknown, which was Robert. All along Robert was making really good strides in training. Robert looked good. We just weren’t ready to change the order. In the end we said if we are going to win a medal we have to be willing to change the order and there is no better place to change than the first leg.
Bailey: That was easy. Carlton strained his hamstring and was injured; Robert was ready to go.
Gilbert: Carlton took it OK. He wasn’t happy but he could have hidden [the injury] which would have resulted in us finishing second or third. But he said, “I don’t think I could go; you guys got to put Robert in there.”
Esmie: I said, I don’t give a crap who got hurt and who didn’t get hurt. I earned my position, bottom line.
Gilbert: When we made the change, Robert was ecstatic. He basically packed up and went back to the village and got himself ready, and I’m telling you he came ready to run and he was absolutely fantastic. It was exactly what we were missing.
Esmie: Originally I was supposed to run the third leg because I’m low-profile. I can handle the corner and I can handle the straightaway. Donovan especially had an issue passing so we made the decision to leave him anchor.
Gilbert: Donovan was not always a great stick handler so it made sense where he was. If he was a better stick handler he would have run second, as that’s what you’re seeing more now, the best sprinters running second. You need a big push. Your second or third runner is what decides a relay. You could have a great guy at the end but if you don’t get him that stick in a decent position it doesn’t matter how fast he is. It’s not just about speed, it’s about handling the pressure at the end of the relay with everybody staring at you.
The Americans were defending Olympic champions and world-record holders. They were running on home soil. After Bailey won the 100-metre final, the American media pushed the idea that America was still the greatest sprinting nation because 200-metre gold medallist Michael Johnson had a greater top speed than Bailey and the American relay team was the fastest and deepest in the world.
Gilbert: We avoided watching lot of the media coverage. A lot of it was pro-American. They were guaranteeing a win [for the U.S.]. You can go and cash it, it’s a done deal. Well, obviously that didn’t happen.
Surin: We were having dinner and watching TV and there was a feature talking about should the Americans put Carl Lewis on the team so he could get another gold medal. We’re like, wait a minute. We’re here, there are other good teams here. That was more motivation for us. Once we got to the final, we were so hyped it was incredible.
Bailey: The coach of the U.S. team said, “You can take it to the bank. The U.S. has the gold and Carl Lewis is going to anchor.” Then I had a press conference before the race and all I said was, “Carl is way smarter than that to step on that track. He knows what’s up.”
Gilbert: We had won the world championships before, and the U.S. had run, but they dropped the stick. It was still a gold medal, but [in Atlanta we had] to beat the world’s best team.
Surin: Those guys were trying to do a lot of intimidation and trash talking.
Gilbert: They put you in these closed corridors when you’re getting ready. There is a lot of staring, a lot of chest pumping. We wouldn’t even take it on; we’ll let the running speak for itself. Jon Drummond was a big talker. He was a leadoff guy. Dennis Mitchell, again, talker. “We’re going to be leaving you guys after the second exchange. It will be over. This is our medal to have.” We wouldn’t say too much back but you do the talking to the guy on your leg. You’d make him know that this is your leg.
Bailey: When you watch track and field now you see the friendly conversations of guys in the field. When I competed, we were boxers. You’re really trying to manipulate the minds of seven guys. Which one of you guys have I beaten today before I even step to the line?
Esmie: Jon Drummond was faster than me on paper but anytime I ran a relay against that guy I’ve got his nuts in my hand. Because I’m a show-time guy. Leading into the Olympics I got a shirt that said “Relax, you’ve been erased.” The movie Eraser was out then. I walked past [Drummond] and I said to myself, “Please read it, please read it.” He said, “Oh, you’ve been erased.” I said, “Damn right, you’ve been erased.” If you have the ability to stop and read somebody’s shirt you’re not that focused. At that level, 90 percent is mental. If you can take somebody off mentally you have them in your back pocket.
Bailey: The Americans were probably faster than us if you stuck all of us in the 100-metre but I think sometimes they don’t understand the impact a baton has, that when another man is waiting for a baton, that baton is the most important thing in the world.
Esmie: Straight up, we were not the fastest team on paper.
Bailey: But you put Robert in there and he is upset because he hadn’t run the rounds. Glenroy was upset that he didn’t make the 100-metre. Bruny was upset that he didn’t make the final of the 100-metre. So it was a powder keg of upset. The fact is although the Americans were speaking the loudest, they were the underdogs.
On the way to the final, the team’s van got into an accident.
Esmie: We got rear-ended. Just a little fender bender.
Gilbert: Believe it or not, we were very calm. We all came outside and were leaning up against the side rail of the highway dressed in our Olympic garb. We had to wait for a traffic cop to assess the damage to the woman’s car. We told him, Look we are in the men’s 4×100 final, that’s happening in a couple hours. The guy ended up giving us a police escort right to the warmup track.
Robert Esmie showed up to the final with the words “Blast Off” shaved into his head.
Gilbert: When we were on the warmup track he had a baseball hat on and we could see patches of hair missing through the back of the hat. We said “Robert, what did you do to your head?” And he said, “Oh, you’ll see.” He never took his hat off until we got out on the track. I look up on the Jumbotron and saw it with the rest of the world and just said “Wow, this kid.” But if you know Robert Esmie, that’s not a surprise.
Bailey: To this day I still feel the same way. I was a little upset. I was a little hot. I am from a household where I was thinking of my dad, clean-cut, nice shirt, nice pants, dress right. The haircut and I didn’t see eye to eye. But that’s him. Robert is like a big kid. Even when I see him today he’s like the little brother. He was a happy-go-lucky kid. And he did his job. If he came out with all that and didn’t do his job, we wouldn’t be talking about it today.
The key for the Canadian team was not necessarily their speed but the execution through the transitional zones.
Gilbert: Typically you’re waiting and you’re absolutely terrified. I don’t even know what to tell you. It is like nothing, I’ve never felt it again. You only feel it when you’re out there in an Olympic final. You just want it to be over so badly but you have to keep your composure. And you have to be careful to make sure that your quads don’t give way. Your knees buckle. That’s the type of nervous energy I’m talking about.
Surin: When the gun goes all I see is eight guys running in the curve. I’m like, “Are we leading? Are we last? Are we third?” I had no idea from where I was standing.
Esmie: When I started and I passed the guy in lane seven. I was just thinking of my father who died. I didn’t hear anything, I just felt him with me as I ran.
Glenroy: When Robert got to the top of the corner he looked like he was running really well. Better than Carlton. So I left the mark a step early, which is not recommended. But when you have a guy that you noticeably see the cadence is much quicker… I left just a hair early. There is no sound. You can’t hear him yelling at you. I put my hand back in the middle of the zone. Felt the baton.
Esmie: When I handed off to Glenroy the noise kicked back in. He had some challenges in the individual events but when you put a baton in this guy’s hands you always have a different beast.
Bailey: Glenroy is probably the most underrated sprinter who has ever run for Canada. Glenroy would run 10.4 in the 100-metre, but you put a baton in his hand, 9.9 every time.
Surin: I see eight guys running at me. I still have no idea, so I said let’s focus on my mark.
Gilbert: I ran down the back stretch not hearing anything. Just wind. Not the crowd, not the guy beside me, nothing, it was dead silent. It was peace and quiet. The only time I heard anything again is when I gave Bruny the baton. It was almost like the baton was snatched out of mid-air. It wasn’t like I made contact with his hand and he closed his hand on the stick and then I let it go. I let the stick go in the air and he snatched it out of the air.
Surin: As soon as Glenroy gets to the mark, I take off. Even running the curve I have no idea where we stand.
Esmie: I looked up at the big screen and I saw Bruny running and his teeth were just grinning. It was like an animal came out. He’s tearing up the third leg up. I saw the track literally being torn up behind him.
Gilbert: Once he hit the top of the corner I knew. I knew the only thing standing in the way of us winning this Olympic medal was how Bruny and Donovan exchange the baton.
Surin: It’s only after the curve that I had a slight view on my left because the Americans were in lane four. I’m like, if after the curve I don’t see anything beside me, we win.
Bailey: Bruny and I made an adjustment from the heats because Bruny didn’t realize how fast the track was and how fast I was going. So when I took off I had to wait almost at the wall to get the baton.
Esmie: I saw Donovan turn around and I was like please, please just get the baton.
Bailey: People think you’re nervous or whatever, but you are just looking at the track and the mark that his foot needs to hit. Nobody is around. I could be in my basement playing Playstation. [Laughs]. The comfort level that you are in, even with all the chaos, different languages of people saying baton or stick, it was nothing, you don’t hear anything. It is almost in slow motion even though everyone is going a hundred miles a minute. I turn around slowly. I look at him and all I have to do is look at the mark. When his foot hits the mark I take off. His job is to catch me and as soon as I get the stick he put his hand up because it’s over.
Surin: When I gave the baton to Donovan, I didn’t see the American next and that’s when I knew we won the race. It was a great feeling. I was so pumped. I was so happy. When I gave the stick to Donovan I still wanted to run to the finish line. I didn’t want to stop.
Gilbert: Once the baton was in Donovan’s hands I knew it was done. There was no way Dennis Mitchell was going to catch Donovan. He was just having the Games of his life. He wasn’t going to be beat that night. We gave Donovan a six-metre lead off the corner and if he has a six-metre lead he’s not going to lose any of it, in fact he’s going to add on to it.
The iconic image from the race is of Donovan Bailey finishing with his hand in the air. It put an exclamation mark on the performance.
Esmie: Twenty metres out, putting his hand up, I’m like yes, thank you, Jesus. I looked up to the sky and said, “Dad, you were here watching me run. You can rest in peace.”
Surin: I really think we could have broken the world record back then. The funny thing is, he crosses the line, I’m still jogging to the end, and when we all came together and saw the official time, the only thing Donovan said is, “Guys, I’m sorry.” We all knew what he meant by that. I was like, “Man, don’t worry, we killed them.” Our goal was just to destroy them. To humiliate them because they had no respect for us. We weren’t worried about the world record.
Esmie: I felt there was no world record because it would have put the individual event in the backseat. I don’t know if he sabotaged it but we are intelligent folks. I plan things in advance. I planned my haircut in advance. I’m sure he plans things in advance. It would be nice to have two world records to his name but [he’d] have to share the spotlight. Might be a simple mistake but if you ask the other team members, based on what we know and personalities, it may not be black and white.
Bailey: I don’t think we could have had a world record. Robert would have had to run a tighter corner at the start. The bottom line is this, in 1996, we were Olympic champions. We will be Olympic champions forever and that is the bar. In any sport your legacy is not as cemented as others if you are missing an Olympic title. Maybe I just wanted to stick it to the Americans. Putting my hand up was saying we are No. 1 and I’m putting the No. 1 up at you from 20 metres out.
Esmie: I understand the heat of the moment but 20 metres out? One metre across the line sure, but 20 metres out? No world record? We’ll let it go.
For the second consecutive Saturday, a gold medal went to Canada in an American-dominated event on American soil. The team posted the sixth-fastest time in history, just missing the Americans’ record set in 1993 of 37.40. The record wasn’t broken until 2008 when Usain Bolt and Co. 37.10 at the Beijing Olympics.
Gilbert: I just stood there and watched on the Jumbotron, bent over, completely exhausted with no strength to even walk. My legs were jelly.
Esmie: I went and grabbed Carlton from the stadium. If we are celebrating, I wanted him to celebrate. The first thing I did was grab my baton and make sure it was safely in my bag the next thing was grab Carlton.
Gilbert: When we finally got back from the other side of the track and grabbed the Canadian flag and did a slow victory lap, I’m telling you there is nothing better than that. You can see the faces of the people in the stands and the way they look back at you with this awe. Because you just showed something they hadn’t seen.
Surin: The expressions we saw of the people watching us, most of them Americans, was like, This is a bad movie. This is not supposed to happen. What’s going on? Because the way the TV sold the 4 x 100 relay was, Come see our nation win the 4×100. That was the message.
Esmie: Jon Drummond after kept saying “We didn’t lose, we came second.” OK, idiot guy.
Surin: Before you said you’re going to kick our ass. Now you say you didn’t lose, you came second.
The four members who ran the final took the podium; all five members received medals.
Gilbert: You get out in this stadium of 85,000 people and God knows how many more people watching and are in the No. 1 position. It’s insane. And moreover, having the national anthem played in front of the world and you know all of Canada is watching. It was remarkable. Every time I think about it, I think about that moment. When I see pictures of us it just gives me goosebumps. Walking out there with the guys and standing up there with our hands raised and looking at the faces of the people watching us.
Esmie: To be on the podium, to receive that medal, after I grew up in Sudbury, trained in a hockey arena, ran outside in the snow. I trained myself. I had a vision that you could make dreams happen anywhere.
Bailey: The biggest goal I had was to make sure those guys got there. That’s why I made a commitment three years prior to the relay program.
Esmie: We did media until about three in the morning.
Gilbert: We made this agreement with the coach. He said, “If you guys win, I’m going to rent a limo and take you guys out on the town.” I don’t think he really thought we were going to do it. We get back in our van and we were driving back to Buckhead. And when we turn into our neighbourhood where we were staying, there was a limo across the street at this gas station, this white stretch limo. We said, “Andy, good job.” He said, “No, no, no, I don’t know who that belongs to. I didn’t get anything, I really didn’t.”
Surin: That night we didn’t sleep at all.
Gilbert: We sat up all night just talking about the race. I don’t believe we slept because we had an 8:30 flight.
Bailey: I had to compete in Zurich, Switzerland, a few days afterwards. We didn’t have a big blowout. After the track season we had a pretty big celebration in Ottawa.
Surin: People were saying, “We won gold.” It was not Bruny or Donovan, it was we as a nation.
Gilbert: [On my flight back to Canada], they upgraded me, they gave me a bottle of wine. Everyone had the Globe and Mail and Toronto Sun and Star so people were coming up asking me to sign the newspapers. They bumped me up to business class because they said I needed to get some rest. When I landed in Ottawa, two RCMP officers basically told the flight attendants to let me off the plane. They never pulled up to the gate; I went through this back route. I never went through customs or anything like that. They said, “There are a lot of people in the terminal in the airport waiting to see you.” We won the world championships the year before and there was like a momma and poppa squad with the camera that came to do a quick interview. I mean, how many people could really be out there? And when I came out and they opened the door, as far as I could see in the terminal was jam-packed with people. The reception was nothing like I expected. I was in the airport after the plane landed for three hours thanking folks.
Bailey: Going back to Oakville, huge parade, getting a street named after me. Getting a park named after me. The greatest fans in the world are Canadian fans and sometimes we aren’t vocal about how patriotic we are but Canadian fans are the best because they want to sit and talk to you about what it means.
Esmie: I remember stopping at a truck stop to get some food and everyone started clapping and yelling “Blast off!” I said, wow, I’m going to have to get a clothing line.
Surin: After that, I was introduced as Bruny Surin, Olympic Gold medallist. Opportunity came, and even today I’m living a good life. I can say that 75 percent of the opportunity that I have is related to my sport career.
Bailey: The Olympic gold medal allowed the relay team to get out and have a voice and make a living. Robert is quite successful at what he is doing. Glenroy is quite successful at what he is doing. Bruny is quite successful at what he is doing. And Carlton is the same. It allowed us to use the stage that we had to do good.
Gilbert: We won three world titles, we won the Goodwill Games, we won everything we could, beat any team out there, so we share a moment in history together. It’s a bit of a brotherhood, a camaraderie when we see each other. We are certainly not looking like the sprinters of the mid-90s, but we have stories we can share, reminisce, and laugh. We laugh a lot. We demonstrated the Canadians are not just hockey players or winter sport athletes. We can be summer athletes, and it is happening again.