1996: How did Donovan Bailey Keep Cool after 3 False Starts?

Before you read the rest of this article, or the full article on Stuart McMillan’s blog, take a full 15 minutes and watch the build up to the 1996 Olympic 10 meter finals in Atlanta.  (SPOILER ALERT: Donovan Bailey wins in a WR of 9.84)

Let’s see if you can stay focused after all the false starts and lengthy delays caused by Linford Christie.

Here is the video on YouTube:

Interview with Donovan Bailey (Part 2)

Click here for Part 1 of this article.

Stuart McMillan: What does success mean to you?

Donovan Bailey:  Success doesn’t mean you necessarily have to break a world record.  Success means that you do everything in your power to maximize every ability in your body.  Now – for some of us, it may mean that we become the best in history at what we do.  For others, it might mean second place.  Others, it may be tenth place.  For others, it will be something else.  The final outcome is not that important – as long as you can look yourself in the eye and know that you have willed every ounce of effort out of yourself.  

Success is ultimately defined by results – but is limited by your God-blessed ability and talent, and what it is you are blessed with.  It’s a combination of hard work, environment, attitude, ego, confidence – it’s all of those things. 

I’m number four of five boys.  Winning matters.  But it’s not winning, if you’re going to destroy yourself if you don’t win.  It’s winning with the understanding that if you get knocked down today, you will tell your opponent that you will be coming back tomorrow.  And if you get knocked down again, it’s telling him you’re going to come back the next day.  It doesn’t matter what you do.  It’s the same attitude you need if you’re a salesman.  It’s the same attitude you need if you’re a CEO.  It’s the exact same – nothing is different.  I sit on a variety of boards – including some charities – and it’s the same thing.  It’s still a competition.  There is only a finite amount of business or dollars to go around.  It’s all a competition.  

SM: In your mind, what are the three most important factors essential to an athlete’s success?

DB:  Ok – I think the number one thing is the athlete has to make a commitment to be a student.  That is number one.  

Number two – he needs to surround himself with extremely smart people.  What he needs to do is absorb as much of the very best information as he can from all of those people.  For example, I think you need to have an incredible coach, therapist, and nutritionist.  Those are key.

And number three – you have to have focus and discipline.  If you don’t, then you can just throw out the previous two…

For example, the Olympic Final: three false starts later…

My reaction time out of the blocks was horrendous.  I ran the worst 30m I had ever ran.  I mean – according to Dan, I was capable of running between 9.71 and 9.74.  I wasn’t even close.  

SM:  So how were you able to maintain focus and discipline while all this was going on – the false starts, I mean…

DB:  One – it’s a race – there are still things I needed to do.  I had to remember that the simple things that I was taught in practice are the simple things that I needed to utilize in the race.  And it’s just that.  If you go into a race, and you are over-thinking things, then guys are going to be blowing your doors off. My focus was always – take a deep breath – re-set the clock, almost…

SM:  Yes – I have this image of you sitting on the lane marker stand, seemingly oblivious to everything that was going on…what was going through your head at this point?

Well, you know I was actually just thinking about staying calm.  The easiest thing to do is to think about what I don’t need to do.  It definitely seemed that there was a couple of guys that were getting frustrated, but I really didn’t care.  I saw this frustration, and I just thought to myself “yep – got you…you’re done”…every false start, I got more calm, while others got more frustrated.  I recognized that I was running hellified fast in practice, and if I got out behind anyone, then I just needed to calmly go through my transition – to not panic – and my top-speed would win me the race.  If I did that, it was impossible that I would lose.  It didn’t matter who was out there, I knew I could go snatch them.  So yes – my entire thought process was ‘stay relaxed, take a breath, do a decent drive-phase, and then rely on my top-end’.  

SM:  So basically, you’re sitting there, just focusing on the basics…

DB:  …yes – again – focus and discipline.  My middle 40 I knew was going to be good – it’s like Usain right now – he’s not going to snatch anyone in the first 40, but he knows that no one can touch him in the middle 40.  I knew I had the fastest top-end speed, and it’s something I had to keep in my mind.  I fed off this…

Jimson Lee

Jimson Lee

Coach & Founder at SpeedEndurance.com
I am a Masters Athlete and Coach currently based in London UK. My other projects include the Bud Winter Foundation, writer for the IAAF New Studies in Athletics Journal (NSA) and a member of the Track & Field Writers of America.
Jimson Lee
Jimson Lee
Jimson Lee
  • Donovan Bailey was one of the coolest guys in 100m history. After the quarterfinals I wouldn´t have bet a penny on him, but how he stayed cool after these false starts and kept focused on the race was awesome.

  • He is really an inspiration and all his words can truly motivate anyone who will hear or read them. As I read his interview, I realized that life is not about winning. It is about doing your best and not giving up. This kind of attitude is really great because you will live without any regrets.