TOKYO — There are certain nights in track and field when magic is in the air.
Thirty years ago, on a warm and sticky night in Tokyo, Michael Powell and Carl Lewis put on a long-jumping showcase for the ages. It ended with Powell setting a world record, one that still stands.
It was 85 or so degrees Saturday, humid enough that bare elbows stuck to desktops, when, at 9:51 p.m., the gun went off for the women’s 100-meter Olympic final. To win, as the semifinals had all but made clear, the winner was going to have to run 10.6-something, a time that until this year had seemed impossible if not improbable. But this was a night for 10.6 magic.
Elaine Thompson-Herah, the Rio 2016 champ, ran 10.61, the second-fastest time ever, an Olympic record, one-hundredth of a second faster than the famed Florence Griffith-Joyner, who had run 10.62 at the 1988 Games in Seoul. FloJo still holds the world record, 10.49, also set in 1988.
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The race, it must be said, was not close. Thompson-Herah dominated, and thoroughly, what was a Jamaican sweep. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the 2012 and 2008 100 champ, finished second, in 10.74. Shericka Jackson took third, in a personal-best 10.76.
10.7-something — and beaten. This is track and field in 2021. Is it the extra training because of covid? Is it the super shoes?
Or was it, Saturday, the heat, the humidity, the will to win?
“I see all the backlash. People said I’m mental — I can’t win a medal,” Thompson-Herah said, and this is after she had thrown herself on the track, on her back, and did a little dance of sorts, while Fraser-Pryce and Jackson stared, not knowing what, really, to look at. “Five years later, I’m here claiming my title.”
She added, “Honestly, I think I’m a tough cookie.”
In 10.61 seconds, Thompson-Herah became the fourth member of a select club. She, Wyomia Tyus, Gail Devers and Fraser-Pryce are the only women to go back-to-back gold in the women’s Olympic 100.
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 31: Elaine Thompson-Herah of Team Jamaica celebrates after winning the gold medal in the Women's 100m Final on day eight of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
“I held my composure and held my head high,” Thompson-Herah said.
Track geek alert: the race was run into a headwind of 0.6 meters per second. If there had been no wind whatsoever, according to the British publication Athletics Weekly, Thompson-Herah’s time would have been 10.57. With the legally allowable tailwind, 2.0 meters per second, she would have run 10.47.
More geek, this time Jamaica-style: since 2008, in the women’s 100, Jamaicans have won 10 of the 12 medals since 2008 and every single gold. Since 1984, Jamaican women have won 16 of 30 medals.
There was one American in Saturday’s final — Teahna Daniels, seventh, in 11.02. The last time an American did not cross the finish line in the top six: 1948.
The final, moreover, proved a discrete lesson about expectations meeting reality. The likes of Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith, winner in 2019 of the overall 100m Diamond League title, the 200m winner that same year at the Doha world championships — she did not qualify for the finals, an 11.05 in the semis not fast enough. Coming off the track, she said in emotional interviews that she was pulling out of the 200, too, citing a hamstring injury.
This Olympic final saw the three Jamaicans, two Swiss (two Swiss?!), one American (Daniels), one Brit (Daryll Neita) and seemingly perennial fourth-placer Marie-Josee Ta Lou of Cote d’Ivoire.
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A semifinal sounds like there should be, you know, two heats. One of the confounding things for newcomers to international track and field sprints is that there are, well, three.
In the first, Thompson-Herah, cruising, ran 10.76. In the second, Jackson, motoring along, 10.79. In the third, Fraser-Pryce, not even breathing hard — this is a fact — ran 10.73, and she dropped out of first gear well before the finish line.
In Seoul in 1988, Griffith-Joyner ran that Olympic record, 10.62.
In June at a meet in Jamaica, Fraser-Pryce ran 10.63. That had been the second-fastest time in history.
Thompson-Herah was the Rio 2016 champ. She was only third at the Jamaican Trials. All the same, at a meet in Hungary last month, she served notice with a 10.71.
Fraser-Pryce was in her fourth straight Olympic 100 final. Most analysts, especially after that 10.63, thought she would win. She looked so strong after that easy 10.73 in the semifinals.
In the finals, though, she started poorly, and never got into her race rhythm. One lane over, Thompson-Herah was running away with it. At the line, it was clear Fraser-Pryce was a little miffed about running second. But, she said, she got over it.
In a late-night press conference, Fraser-Pryce said, "Have you ever lost anything? Yes. You definitely are going to feel disappointed. That's your first reaction. You're disappointed you didn't run the race you wanted to run."
She had said diplomatically earlier, in a television interview, and to be clear Fraser-Pryce is the classiest of class acts, "To be able to stand on the podium again is such a tremendous honor."
Who, by the way, finished fourth? Ta Lou, in 10.91.
“I’m really,” Thompson-Herah said, and what else, really, was there to say, on a warm, sticky night when 10.61 became, like magic, a new standard, one that since the 1980s had seemed out of reach, “proud of myself.”