When Bailey won gold in Atlanta, I realized what it meant to be Canadian

Donnovan Bennett explains how Donovan Bailey’s Olympic exploits taught him the importance of celebrating black history in Canada.

Why do the Olympics matter, you ask? Why are national anthems still played? For me the answer is this: The seminal moment of my childhood—the one that made me feel Canadian—happened on July 27, 1996. The day Donovan Bailey won gold in Atlanta.

I was 13 years old, attending a baseball tournament in Sarnia, Ontario. At that point in life my only concern was trying to get on base as a leadoff hitter for the Richmond Hill Rebels. Still, every night after my games I would race back to the hotel with my bat-boy younger brother and my parents (who both ran track at some point in each of their lives) to watch the Olympics.

I remember that Saturday evening like it was yesterday: the three false starts and Linford Christie throwing his track spikes in the garbage; Donovan with his patented slow start but having the speed endurance and disciplined form to glide through the acceleration phase and dominate in the deceleration phase. Don Wittman’s voice pronouncing, “Here comes Bailey.” Those words were necessary, because you couldn’t believe the picture on your screen.

I remember how I felt watching Donovan do a lap of the track, draped with a Canadian flag. I know most of our country saw it as a chance to reclaim pride post—Ben Johnson; I remember it as an opportunity to claim Canadian pride, period. At that time, I was trying to figure out who I was in the world.

I was in Canadian citizenship purgatory. Make no mistake, I was a Canadian citizen, this is the country of my birth. In fact I was the first person on either side of my lineage to be born in Canada. Unlike my parents, I wasn’t born in Jamaica and unlike my grandparents, I didn’t have an accent, so I didn’t feel truly Jamaican. But unlike most of my classmates, I didn’t have a grandparent who fought in a war and I didn’t ski or have a cottage. I didn’t listen to Tom Connors or Bryan Adams. When I opened up my lunch box filled with cola champagne, bun and cheese, hard dough bread, and oxtail, I could tell my classmates had a hard time placing me as well. None of the social constructs ascribed to Canadians felt applicable to me. At an age when you’re starting to define who and what you are, I felt like an outsider in my own country. Until Bailey’s win reframed for me what it meant to be Canadian.

Here was a guy from the same parish in Jamaica as my family, and whose name I share. It was the first time I saw someone who looked like me being praised nationally. Until then, every black reference, whether musician, athlete, actor or otherwise that I knew from the media was American. Before P.K. Subban and Andrew Wiggins and Andre De Grasse and Masai Ujiri and Drake, Donovan Bailey was a reference point.

And as he took the podium and had that gold medal placed around his neck, everything clicked. What it truly means to be Canadian isn’t that you are the same, but that you are different. And those differences strengthen our nation into the unique mixture that other countries admire.

There was no social media at the time but for all intents and purposes I liked, favourited, and retweeted that moment in my mind. When Donovan was joined on the podium by West Indian–landed immigrants Robert Esmie, Glenroy Gilbert, and Bruny Surin a week later for the gold in the 4×100 relay, Wittman was right when he said “you have to love these Saturday nights in Georgia,” because now it wasn’t just an anomaly. It made me want to go on and represent Ontario and Canada, which I eventually was blessed to do playing rugby. It made me want to speak as confidently and as eloquently as Bailey did in front of cameras. It made me carry myself with pride as a black Canadian. It showed me that our country was inclusive.

That hot summer night helped me understand why my grandparents left their family to come north to a cold country. Every time I’m at a sporting event with my grandfather, watching him belt out “O Canada” in patois, I get emotional. It is practically the only time I get emotional. Because it takes me back 20 years ago to Donovan Bailey giving me a 9.84 civics lesson that I too am Canadian and should be proud of it.

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