Listen to Donovan Bailey

Twenty-four years ago, the nation was unwilling to hear the Olympic hero’s message. It matters more than ever as Canadians finally confront their country’s own racist history. “We can’t afford to blow this moment," he says.
Royson James
‘We can’t afford to blow this moment,’ Bailey says of the push brought on by Floyd’s death (Photograph by Kwaku Kufuor)
Donovan Bailey. (Photograph by Kwaku Kufuor)

The first time Donovan Bailey revealed his views on racism in Canada, he was weeks away from sprinting into sporting nobility by winning the 100-m, the marquee event at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Bailey told Sports Illustrated that Canadian racism was prevalent, though not as blatant as America’s. The magazine published the comment, but left out the “not.” Bailey pointed out that he had been misquoted, and SI later acknowledged his version might have been correct. But the very thought of accounting for Canada’s racial sins? Few Canadians were inclined to listen.

From his bosses at the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and Athletics Canada to the opinions on the sports pages, the backlash amounted to “Just shut up and run.” Hadn’t the United Nations just named Canada the best place in the world to live? “We’ve certainly not discriminated against any of our athletes,” said Carol Anne Letheren, then-CEO of the COC.

Run Bailey did, deliriously faster than any man before him; but he could not outrun the row caused by his racism claim, a demonstrable but embarrassing indictment of a country stuck in smug complacency about its place in the world order of fair-minded nations, and overly sensitive to comparisons with its oversized and racially uncouth American neighbours. (Bailey plans to tell all in a book next year, timed to commemorate a quarter-century since his Olympic gold.)

READ: ‘The weight of change should not rest on the shoulders of Black people’

Twenty-four years later, Bailey’s message is back—this time with a chorus of unlikely allies. The deniers disappeared with the disgusting demise of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man whose life the world saw snuffed out beneath the knee of an arresting police officer on May 25 in Minneapolis.

In response to the video of Floyd’s death, Canada’s Prime Minister, politicians, police chiefs and citizens by the thousands now proclaim tenets of the very doctrine that got Bailey condemned. Canadians march in protests, take a knee, parrot slogans once deemed anathema and embrace revolutionary stances in a kind of global penance for the original colonial sin of racism.

Canadians may have forgotten Bailey’s audacity, on display at a time when the nation felt particularly vulnerable to unfavourable comparisons to the U.S. (There was the national angst that Canadian distinctiveness was being subsumed by the free trade agreement with the U.S. And, worst of all, hockey’s greatest, Wayne Gretzky, was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles, leaving Canada for Hollywood, with an American actress as his wife no less.) Notwithstanding that the very question itself smacks of patriarchal plantation privilege, did Canada forgive Bailey?

Is it a delusion—this current swirl of community compassion that compels white Canadians to contemplate, at least for argument’s sake, that racism is woven into our systems of law, justice, education, housing, employment, the entire infrastructure, as claimed by “radical” groups like Black Lives Matter and more mainstream plaintiffs like the Black Health Alliance?

Bailey doesn’t know, and he is not waiting to find out. Since George Floyd’s horrible death, Bailey has appeared on numerous media platforms, delivering an old message with a tweak. Compared to America, Blacks in Canada experience “racism with a smile,” Bailey tells audiences, appropriating an old line used by authors like Cecil Foster. The words are a near acceptable slur; almost politely Canadian. Irony is, at a moment when Canadians may be willing to swallow the most bitter and plain truths about our own racist history, this messenger is learning to dispense the medicine with a spoonful of sugar.

“Whatever it takes,” Bailey says. “We can’t afford to blow this moment.” On this June morning, the 52-year-old is speaking en route from Oakville to Centennial Stadium in Etobicoke to work out, get in shape, nothing serious, run a bit, just ridding himself of a little ripple forming in the midsection.

So motivated is Bailey by the crack in the wall of silence around racism that he is contemplating a run for public office.

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“Yes, there might be some interest there,” he says. “At this stage, this is a place where I can make changes and use my voice and platform. You need someone who looks like the people being affected by systemic racism. You need Black men at the decision-making tables at all levels. I can sit today and speak to Prime Minister Trudeau and the leader of the Opposition and most heads of countries. I can use my platform and lend my voice at that level, as well as go to community leaders; I can connect to the leaders in the land and then the person in the street. I understand their plight; I can listen and deliver.”

In talking with his circle of friends, including some extremely high-achievers in the Toronto area, Bailey senses an urgency and a determination to push the envelope now because Canadians may stop listening tomorrow. “We cannot only speak,” says Bailey. “We must take an active part to create structures so we don’t have to have this conversation going forward. We are all fathers; all successful Black men. We have to make a move. We all have to do more than just talk.”

For example, in an full-page op-ed call to action in the June 13 edition of the Toronto Star, Wes Hall, a Jamaican immigrant turned successful business executive, trenchantly outlined the effects of systemic racism on his own mixed-race family living in the old-money Rosedale neighbourhood on the edge of downtown Toronto. “When I am exercising with my wife and my neighbour asks her if I am her personal trainer . . . when a maintenance worker comes to my house and I answer the door and he tells me to go get Mr. Hall, this is anti-Black systemic racism,” Hall wrote.

He and his three sons have taken to wearing “I am George Floyd” T-shirts in solidarity. But it is his action aimed at corporate Canada that may be the game changer. Hall is calling out the business titans with a specific, unavoidable challenge.

Now that you know better, even belatedly, do better.

“To those employers, leaders and politicians who consider their organizations to be diverse, I urge you to look at the makeup of your board, your management team, your supply chain, or your cabinet and tell me how many Black people do you see . . . where there is no representation it leads to the conclusion that there are systemic biases,” Hall, who is the executive chair of Kingsdale Advisors, wrote.

Almost on cue, on June 25, Bloomberg News published data showing that of 188 top executive and board positions at Canada’s Big Six banks and two large life insurers, only one is filled by someone who is Black. The institutions operate out of Toronto, diversity capital of the world.

So Hall is partnering with Victor Dodig, CEO of CIBC, Prem Watsa of Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd., and Rola Dagher of Cisco Canada to launch BlackNorth. The goal? Reverse the trend and spike the number of Black participants. They’ve invited senior leaders from the top 250 TSX companies, big corporations like General Motors and Microsoft, and the largest asset managers and investment firms in Canada to a summit on July 20.

READ: Canada’s own legacy of racist oppression

The admission ticket to the summit is an actual plan and promise that the CEOs will sign to end systemic anti-Black racism by placing Black people on corporate boards, in executive positions and in their workforce, Hall says in an interview.

“It is not acceptable to say we can’t find a Black person who fits the requirements of a position. Those arguments didn’t work to address the gender diversity divide,” Hall says. “When companies are mandated or have the desire, they find a solution.”

In the near quarter-century since Bailey’s blast, Canada’s governing sports bodies have done some diversity training and initiatives. Women are better represented and there are strong supports for LGBTQ athletes, says COC spokesman Photi Sotiropoulos. But neither the COC nor Athletics Canada can be proud of the lack of diversity among its decision-makers. The COC has 19 board members. Only one is Black. Athletics Canada has zero Blacks on its 12-member board.

Meanwhile, Bailey is still bothered that few people—and none from Athletics Canada or the COC—took the time to ask him why he spoke out about racism in Canada. Their top athlete and global superstar had a concern and nobody cared to ask. Instead, his superiors railed at him for “startling and unfounded” criticism, he says. And, he believes to this day, “they boxed me out.” He’s never been asked to lead a track and field team to any games, like the Pan Ams, Commonwealth or Olympics; there’s been no coaching assignment, no ambassadorial role, no promotion for endorsement deals.

Do you see Hockey Canada treating Wayne Gretzky that way? Or Basketball Canada going for two decades without trying everything to get NBA star Steve Nash on their corporate sports team?

Gretzky, Nash and athletes little known and long forgotten are on the Order of Canada honour roll, the nation’s most prestigious civilian honour. Gretzky made the list twice (the list has three increasingly prestigious categories) and didn’t even hurry to pick up the insignias, letting them sit at Rideau Hall for more than a decade both times. Hockey stars Phil Esposito and Bobby Clarke never collected theirs. Bailey? Nobody’s offered. Must have said something.

Now, with racism chatter a common chorus, Bailey demonstrates how both versions might intersect with his post-competition life, since 2001.

Blatant racism, American-style, would present like this: Donovan, you are not welcome here. You are really good at running and winning medals and marketing the sport and your brand is great. But now you have a tie on, you are not the image we want in the executive suite.

“In Canada, instead, it’s racism with a smile. They don’t tell you to your face. They don’t out-and-out reject you. They ignore you. They don’t even have a conversation,” Bailey says.

While Bailey was making lots of money running on the pro circuit in Europe, many of his teammates toiled in obscurity, with little help from the country’s sporting bodies. In sports where white athletes dominate, their bodies seemed to take care of them with opportunities; in athletics, where Black athletes predominate, financial assistance was hard to find. When Bailey spoke up about it, the advocacy was not welcomed.

Bailey has met recently with the COC’s new CEO, David Shoemaker, to thaw relations. Dave Bedford, the new CEO at Athletics Canada, told Maclean’s he would be ecstatic to have Bailey on his board. He cherishes people who give their opinions.

‘The greatest thing about track and field,’ Bailey says, is ‘I run, I win. I don’t need your vote.’ (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)
‘The greatest thing about track and field,’ Bailey says, is ‘I run, I win. I don’t need your vote.’ (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

In 1996, there were many grievances that could have triggered Bailey’s racism claim. Day-to-day depictions of life for his Black friends across the GTA were quite different from Bailey’s reality. While Bailey lived a privileged life in wealthy Oakville, outside Toronto, buttressed by a supportive, strong family, his friends complained of racial profiling, sketchy housing, job challenges and the daily grind of living while Black. And always the police.

“I felt I had to speak up for them, though my experience was very different,” he says.

In Toronto, a spike in gun violence had 2005 dubbed as the Year of the Gun. Often, Jamaicans became a media metaphor, a code word for badness, and Bailey internalized it like so many Jamaicans fed up with being blamed for every crime or social dysfunction of a tiny group of young men who lived and died as if they had nothing to lose. Few gatherings of Jamaicans occur, even today, without this angst infiltrating conversation.

The stench of the 1988 Ben Johnson steroid scandal infected everything. Johnson had cheated and was rightly punished, yes. But many others in the athletics pipeline knew or should have known about his indiscretions and played along to benefit from the spoils. And when Johnson fell, he fell alone, heaped upon by racist depictions that dehumanized him and tainted the Black athletes, especially the ones with Jamaican roots.

When Maclean’s columnist Allan Fotheringham wrote, “Ben—poor, dumb Ben . . . he’s stupid, but he’s not a criminal . . . more stupid are those who have used him, doctored him like a racehorse with strange substances, hoping to cash in on a $4-million bonanza,” he may have been offering solace to Johnson, but it tapped into racial stereotypes about Black intelligence and animal imagery that gave little comfort.

READ: Letters to America from Black Canadians

The pressure to exorcise the ghost of Johnson’s steroid use was enormous, but in an unexpected way. Bailey treated his frequent drug testing as a humorous annoyance. There was no chance he would dope up to run and disappoint his family and Jamaicans . . . but what if he made other mistakes, how might Canadians respond? Bailey knew how Canadians turned on Harry Jerome, the last great sprinting icon before him. Jerome, who was stoned by schoolchildren when his family moved to North Vancouver and he and his sister tried to enrol in grade school in the 1950s, made the mistake of injuring his hamstring at the Rome Olympics and then sustaining a catastrophic quad injury two years later, dashing hopes of Canadian glory. Disappointed at missing out on a certain gold medal, the press tagged him a “quitter” just two weeks after he set a world record.

When Jerome fought back, saying he might just quit Canada, the Toronto Telegram ran a headline that read, “The boy (Jerome) is plain nuts.” The man who broke a sprinting world record seven times was described thusly in the Telegram: Jerome’s “sheer bad manners has placed this young Negro down at the bottom as an athlete ambassador for Canada.”

So, when Bailey said to Sports Illustrated, “Will Canadians love a Black athlete? I hope so. . . ” the statement was loaded. With the shared Jamaican-Canadian history of Johnson, Jerome, Bailey’s crew in Oakville, and the young Black men in the social housing hotbeds, Bailey was wondering, would Canadians love him the way fans love their idols, warts and all—even a confident, outspoken man of the world who’s aware of the stressful pressures on the necks of Black people? And willing to talk about it.

Or would he become a leper—like John Carlos and Tommie Smith, kicked out of the Mexico City Olympic stadium in 1968 for brandishing a gloved, clenched-fist Black Power sign on the victory podium?

Or, to contemporize it, would he be “Kaepernick-ed”—cut down several notches, silenced, blackballed if he dared to step out of his sports lane and veer into politics like football player Colin Kaepernick, who would kneel instead of stand for the national anthem to protest police brutality in America, and was left unemployed because of it.

Sure enough, when, in a moment of hyper excitement at the bizarre conclusion of his one-on-one big-money showdown with American sprinter Michael Johnson at Toronto’s Skydome in 1997, Bailey exploded with, “He’s a chicken . . . we should run again so I can kick his ass again” (he apologized later, but the unsportsmanlike misstep had already been seen by millions, on live TV), the Globe and Mail’s Stephen Brunt branded Bailey “un-Canadian.”

Ouch. Again, “the other.” No wonder Bailey had insisted on declaring his Jamaican birthright on the night of his glorious triumph in Atlanta. I’m a Jamaican-born Canadian sprinter, he insisted. Don’t try to separate them: Jamaica gave me self-esteem and confidence; Canada gave me opportunity. Embrace both.


Now, a moment arises that demands action of anyone concerned about anti-Black racism. Bailey considers himself fiscally conservative and socially liberal. He has tested the political waters, talked to recruiters from the Liberal and Conservative parties and wondered out loud if his independent streak and outspoken personality could exist in a political party system.

“The answer is yes,” he says. “The disruptor can speak truth to power and maybe be the bridge builder.” Then, betraying a humility only lately on view, he says: “I would need a little work. On day one, for me to step into the political ring, Parliament or the Senate, I would have to be tutored and learn a lot more than I know right now. I would have to go to political school.”

And, of course, learn how to win votes.

“The greatest thing about track and field is, it is not a vote. It’s not like the Order of Canada. I run, I win, I am the champ, I don’t need your vote,” Bailey says.

There’s that Order of Canada thing again—the kind of recognition meted out to our top citizens, sportsmen included. If one were to list on both hands the greatest sporting performances and global sport giants in Canadian history, one would be hard-pressed to run out of fingers before naming Donovan Bailey—an international star named by Track and Field News magazine as the Sprinter of the Decade of the 1990s.

“Donovan’s right up there; top 5,” says Bedford, the Athletics Canada CEO. Bedford was in Atlanta as an Olympic official and still lights up recalling Bailey’s triumph, “mouth agape, arms outstretched as he ran right past me” into track and field immortality.

Molly Killingbeck was also in Atlanta, as a track coach following years as an Olympian track athlete. “Donovan was right, but no one was listening,” she says now. “Sometimes you need the right forum. People thought he was arrogant. They are listening now.”

“We’d be kidding ourselves if we thought the issues Donovan tried to raise some 24 years ago don’t exist today,” the COC’s Shoemaker tells Maclean’s. “The difference is, we are prepared to join with athletes and amplify their voices. Privately, we want to consider these voices. I’ve consulted with him on these very issues. As Team Canada, we can do better and do more to fight anti-Black racism in this country.”

And the Order of Canada? Killingbeck has a practical solution. “If he’s been nominated and not accepted, then nominate him again.”

This article appears in print in the August 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Listen to Donovan Bailey.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.