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TOKYO – When the fastest woman in Olympic history crossed the finish line, pointed to the marker, her mouth fell open like a drawbridge and she extended both arms a mile, er, kilometer, wide. At that moment, on the track in an empty stadium but in front of an international audience that witnessed an unprecedented 10.61 seconds, the celebration had begun.
Elaine Thompson-Herah from Jamaica seemed like all she wanted in the world was to find someone to hold. This marked a bad moment, which followed a great moment. With no one available, he started yelling, and because there were no fans beyond his coaches and volunteers here, his jubilation echoed up to the rafters, and probably down the block. Then he fell backwards, onto the track, with his arms and legs extended, as if he wanted to make a snow angel in 90-degree temperatures.
Her main rival and compatriots, two-time gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, stood there, her face covered in astonishment. Not because Thompson-Herah won, but because What he triumphed, with the second-fastest time in race history, despite a headwind, a pandemic and the only energy at the National Stadium on Saturday coming from how fast his legs were moving.
In victory, Thompson-Herah joined Fraser-Pryce in the two 100-meter gold medal club, defending her 2016 title. The Jamaicans now comprise half the membership and helped sweep the event, with Shericka Jackson snagging bronze in his first major championship final at that distance.
That wasn’t the shocking part, nor was it the special. The shocking part was the actual times. Thompson-Herah outscored one of the most successful sprinters in her sport’s history by .13 seconds and defeated the bronze medalist by .15. The special part was the Olympic brand, established by the late Florence Griffith Joyner in 1988, in South Korea. Thompson-Herah beat that time of 10.62 by a hundredth of a second, or roughly the time it takes for a hummingbird to furiously flap its wings seven times.
Then, enjoying the afterglow, Thompson-Herah said something unexpected. Do not: I am amazing. Do not: No one can run like me. She simply said, “I was nervous.”
The person most likely to share that feeling was waking up all over the world. Al Joyner had seen the weather but not the race, and because of that and the time difference, he did not realize that the final was over until a journalist told him. But he didn’t share Thompson-Herah’s nerves. He asked if his time was legal. He said that was it, and headwind, and gasped. “Oh wow, that means the record is broken,” he continued. “That’s amazing. That’s in the books.”
Joyner said she had actually listed Thompson-Herah as the favorite, citing her improved technique that she witnessed in person earlier this year. She seemed more relaxed and advanced differently, to her trained eye, in a meaningful way, by “touching the ground instead of touching the ground.”
As he spoke, it sounded as if Joyner had been transported back to Seoul, to the race his wife won and the record she set it represented. 33 years. He says that Florence had dreamed of getting hold of gold all her life, since childhood, and that when she found out, as she approached her own finish line, she spread her arms.
“Why did you do that?” he asked later.
“Because I realized that I was about to win,” he said.
If this wasn’t the most anticipated 100-meter final since then, it certainly ranked there. Even the qualifying heats times on Friday spoke of a wealth of talent and a track that many of the sprinters here described as “fast.” The day before the final, three resplendent times they would have won a medal four years ago in Rio, betting on the once-open post-Usain Bolt marquee event on track and field.
There wasn’t the usual hum, but it didn’t matter, not with such a deep field. They were the rumor. Who cared about the stands? The volunteers, the lucky ones, huddled together, unable to look away. The favorites advanced into their semifinals, setting up the most desired duel. Thompson-Herah stretched into lane 4. Fraser-Pryce bounced into lane 5. They were even side by side, which seemed appropriate. But they wouldn’t be for long.
The gun rang at 10:55 p.m. in Tokyo, but not before a performance that looked more like a rave. The stadium went dark as the 100 meters that the fastest women in the world would cross were lit up. As each competitor waved for their presentation, their faces, through holograms, illuminated approximately 15-meter sections of the tracks. Their names were also illuminated, along with their national flags. The spotlights danced and a helicopter flew overhead, giving the entire scene a movie-like feel. The fugitive.
Then the race began. Thompson-Herah emerged from the blocks as Joyner would later describe its shape. She looked relaxed and her feet were barely touching the track, acting more like springs. Fraser-Pryce, owner of the world’s fastest time (10.63) this year before Saturday, he did a half push. As if sensing what had happened, Thompson-Herah accelerated, searching for another gear and finding one. She pulled away. She succeeded. And he launched into that epic solo celebration. Anyone who doesn’t watch the replay on NBC in the next few days… won’t watch NBC.
Subsequently, Fraser-Pryce did not rule out other Olympics. He didn’t directly answer questions about Paris in 2024. But when asked to describe his signature four-Games moment, he said he hadn’t created it yet, which would indicate that he wasn’t finished. On Saturday, he did not match Bolt’s trio of Olympic golds, the brand he had been looking for. But he did become the first person to win four Olympic medals in the 100 meters. “It’s definitely a legacy for Jamaica,” she said, referring to herself and her compatriots.
The three Jamaican medalists laughed at questions about the condition of the track. They didn’t want the new Olympic mark to appear to be the result of anything other than technique, willpower and horsepower, or sheer speed. They didn’t think he had.
Joyner didn’t care. The new album didn’t bother him; in fact, I expected it to fall, if not at these Olympics, then at the next world championships. This group of sprinters is too fast, too experienced and has been around for a long time.
He also doesn’t think the world record, also set by Florence, will last forever. That’s the thing about records. They rarely do. Florence ran a 10.49 in Indianapolis, two months before setting the Olympic mark in South Korea. They used to keep it on a table in their home, her husband said, before she died in 1998 after a seizure.
By then, everyone knew her as Flo-Jo, the fastest woman in the world. Joyner knew her as more than that. More than his records too. Certainly more than their times. He said Florence would be happy for Thompson-Herah and happy for Jamaicans. They were also his fiercest rivals, along with his fellow Americans. They pushed her to be faster. She would understand how much they had pushed each other to do the same.
He said he could find the medal in America on Saturday and tell his wife, the one he still misses, about his record, the one now broken.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.