McDonald Bailey is remembered

Mel Watman, former editor of AW, explains why the legendary British sprinter attracted him to athletics

Posted on December 17, 2013 by
Tagged with + +
McDonald Bailey (Mark Shearman)

With the death in Port of Spain on December 4 of ‘Mac’ Bailey, four days before his 93rd birthday, Trinidad and Britain lost one of their most distinguished athletes.

Although born and raised in Trinidad, Emmanuel McDonald Bailey lived in London and represented Britain throughout his sparkling international career and those of a certain age, like myself, will never forget the wondrous sight of this tall, elegant sprinter outclassing almost all of his opponents at the White City year after year.

He, along with Arthur Wint, was the first of my track idols when I got hooked on the sport at the age of 12 and, although I have subsequently watched and reported on much faster men like Bob Hayes, Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt, no one has ever surpassed him in my personal galaxy of sprinting heroes.

Between 1946 and 1953 ‘Mac’ established himself as one of the greatest crowd-pleasers in British athletics history. No important meeting was complete without the sight of the dynamic yet graceful Polytechnic Harrier in full flight. If any sprinter personified “poetry in motion”, it was McDonald Bailey.

His high-level consistency over a long period was astonishing; more often than not running against mediocre opposition on sluggish cinder or grass tracks and in unfavourable weather conditions he turned in dozens of clockings in the range of 9.6-9.8 for 100 yards and 21.1-21.5 for 220 yards and one wonders what he might have achieved had he been resident in the United States, with the good tracks, weather and competition he would have encountered there.

As it was, he almost invariably recorded his fastest times abroad, notably his world record-equalling 10.2 for 100m in 1951. After recording 9.8 and 21.2 in his native Trinidad during the war years Bailey, while still serving in the RAF, made an indelible impression on the 1946 AAA Championships by winning both the 100y and 220y – the first of seven such doubles.

He ran 10.3 for 100m in 1946 and 1947 but was unfortunate to have been hampered by injury throughout 1948 and, suffering from laryngitis to add to his woes, he wound up sixth and last in the London Olympic 100m final and was unfit to compete in the 4x100m relay, the British team finishing second.

Asked two years later to single out his most pleasing performance he chose that Olympic 100m final. “Why? Because I had to battle not only against the opposition but against nature, and to reach the final was a just reward. To do this when I was supposedly ‘finished’ and against mental strain, worry, tension and illness, leaves me extremely gratified.”

The 1949 season marked a return to his normal high standard and while in Iceland he recorded what was adjudged to be a wind-assisted 10.2, although there was no wind gauge in operation and Bailey always thought it to be a genuine performance which would have equalled the world record.

He matched his best acceptable time of 10.3 in 1950 as well as breaking through in the longer sprint with 20.9 for 200m. He enjoyed his day of days in the 1951 Yugoslavia v Britain match in Belgrade. He took full advantage of the perfect conditions to equal the world record of 10.2, owned among others by his boyhood hero, Jesse Owens.

Carrying his age lightly, 31-year-old Bailey shaped up as a potential winner of the 1952 Olympic 100m; perhaps also of the 200m for there were few to equal him as a curve runner whereas his starting prowess was relatively ordinary.

Largely self-coached and one of the first British sprinters to make use of weight training, Bailey was a stylist of the classic school, but it was just his textbook carriage that may have cost him the Olympic 100m crown in Helsinki. Although drawn in one of the worst two lanes, which had been saturated by rainwater dripping from the overlapping grandstand roof, Bailey was on terms with American Lindy Remigino and Jamaica’s Herb McKenley 10 metres from the finish. But whereas his two rivals lunged for the tape Bailey maintained his upright form, ran through the tape as coaches insist, and lost the race.

“It was one of those times,” he commented ruefully, “when if I’d stuck out my chest I might have won.”

As it was, the little known Remigino snatched the verdict by one hundredth of a second from McKenley with Bailey another three hundredths behind. Officially, all three were credited with a hand-timed 10.4. Bailey resolved to win the 200m or bust; in fact he tied up in the straight to finish fourth in 21.0.

Bailey wound up his long career in 1953, turning briefly to professional rugby league. His career statistics were astonishing. According to research by Bernard Linley and Ulf Lagerström published in Track Stats, Bailey lost just nine of his 124 races at 200m/220y and was unbeaten by a Briton in that event between September 1945 and June 1953.

Sixty years after his retirement from sprinting ‘Mac’ continued to be remembered with great affection and admiration by those who marvelled at his speed and consistency.

Leave a Reply