Donovan Bailey unplugged: On Kaepernick, ’96 fallout, legacy

Canada's Donovan Bailey raises his arms to the crowd, after winning the final of the men's 100-meters at the 5th World Track and Field Championships in Goteborg's Ullevi Stadium. (Thomas Kienzle/AP)

Donovan Bailey is a yardie. For the uninitiated, the term is used among the Jamaican diaspora to describe someone of Jamaican origin that maintains roots with the homeland.

He’s also a highly celebrated and fiercely proud Canadian.

I’ve written about race in regards to Bailey in the past and how his domination in Atlanta helped my own assimilation as a West-Indian Canadian.

As Bailey approaches his 50th birthday on Dec. 16, he’s in a reflective mood. I recently met with him at the Spoke Club in Toronto, the site of his upcoming birthday party, and for 45 minutes we discussed the intersection of politics, race, social media, parenting, police brutality and his advocacy for the Native American community and of course, sports.

Bailey’s perspective is unique. He was born in and still owns property in Jamaica. His parents created the Canadian Caribbean Association. And he was raised in Oakville at a time when his family knew all six black families in the then city of over 200,000.

Most of the time when he lined up in the blocks for a race, every other lane was filled with a black man. Most of the time he has entered a boardroom for business meetings, he has been the only black man.

This is what makes his perspective on the current racial and immigration tensions in North America so fascinating.
Bailey has long held strong opinions about race and his place in society as a minority.

In a July 1996 piece prior to winning double Gold at the Atlanta Olympics, Bailey told Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber the following about racism in the United States as opposed to Canada: “We know it exists. People who don’t appear to be Canadian”–people of color–“don’t get the same treatment. They associate you with your parents’ birthplace or your birthplace.”

At the time, the thought of a Canadian Olympic athlete — whose job it was to bring pride to the nation — challenging the outward perception of Canada as multiculturally accepting, was sacrilegious.

Now looking back, Bailey feels he was branded a turncoat.

“If Twitter existed then, a lot of tweets would have come out for me just to run,” he explains. “Run and be quiet.”

To understand these comments, you need to understand the man in full context. Track loved Bailey before he loved it.

Bailey’s first love was in fact basketball, not sprinting. If you look closely in our interview you can see the scar over his right eyebrow, which is a result of hitting his head on a basketball rim.

Bailey was also already a wealthy man before he dedicated his life to track thanks to some real estate investments. So in a way, he never felt beholden to the sport and any riches that came from it. He had an opinion before he was a professional athlete. Why wouldn’t he have one afterwards?

The other constant in his life both before and after his track career, is his group of friends. Bailey has maintained the same tight crew of loyal friends he grew up with. Drake’s “No New Friends” motto is not foreign to Canada’s most famous track star.

Bailey’s crew is comprised of minorities who grew up underprivileged, people of Jewish descent, and some white people from multi-generation Canadian families.

“What I want to do with my friends is listen,” says Bailey. “When you can listen to others perspectives we can learn about the other people that make up this great country.”

Following the Atlanta Games, some wondered if his pre-Olympic comments to Sports Illustrated cost him some sponsorship opportunities or awards.

Bailey’s closest confidants have theories.

For example, Bailey has been awarded the Order of Ontario, but not the Order of Canada. And it wasn’t until 2017 — 21 years after winning double gold in Atlanta — that he was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.

Bailey refuses to point fingers at any one racist act or individual. Not yet, anyways. You see, Bailey is in the process of writing a tell-all book about his experience rising throughout sport in Canada.

So the question is: how does he feel today? Two decades after his comments to Sports Illustrated, has his perspective changed?

Kind of.

“There are things being said and done south of our border that you would never hear being said in Canada because that would be very un-Canadian,” Bailey concedes, before adding, “certainly there are some people here who don’t want the success of immigrants and the success of other people to be like their success.”

It reminds me of the Kanye West line “Racism still alive, they just be concealin’ it” from “never let me down.”

My main takeaway from my conversation with Bailey: he has no regrets. He takes nothing he said or did back because, as he puts it: “That was his journey.” He does however want to impart some wisdom on upcoming Canadian track stars such as Akeem Haynes, Aaron Brown, Brendon Rodney, Bolade Ajomale and Andre De Grasse, so they have an easier path than he did on and off the track.

A good portion of his time is now spent working with amateur athletes on how to market, brand and carry themselves.

“Those are my little brothers,” he explains. “I have a son, but I love them like family. Our people historically have gone through a lot. That is our story. You can trace it all the way back to slavery. But it is incumbent upon everyone, no matter what field, to make it easier on the next generation,” Bailey explains.

Maya Angelou famously said “I rise. I am the dream and hope of the slave.”

Bailey’s dream and hope is that by the next time he’s celebrating a landmark birthday all people in Canada will be able to rise.

And until then, he won’t be quiet.

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