Sun | Sep 19, 2021

Italian sprints from unknown to Olympic champ

Published:Monday | August 2, 2021 | 12:07 AM
Lamont Jacobs (left) of Italy celebrates after winning the Men’s 100m final with Men’s High Jump winner Gianmarco Tamberi, also of Italy, at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo, Japan, yesterday.
Lamont Jacobs (left) of Italy celebrates after winning the Men’s 100m final with Men’s High Jump winner Gianmarco Tamberi, also of Italy, at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo, Japan, yesterday.
Italy’s Lamont Marcell Jacob (second left) in action in the Men’s 100m semi-final at the Tokyo Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, yesterday.
Italy’s Lamont Marcell Jacob (second left) in action in the Men’s 100m semi-final at the Tokyo Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, yesterday.
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TOKYO, Japan (AP):

The 100m at the Olympics is the event that turns sprinters into kings: Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt.

On one of the most unusual nights the sport has ever seen, fans, experts, and even the racers themselves needed a line-up card.

The race that has long defined Olympic royalty went to a Texas-born Italian who hadn’t cracked 10 seconds until this year. He is a 26-year-old whose best days before this came in the long jump. He is a man even the runner in the next lane didn’t really know.

“I think I need four or five years to realise and understand what’s happening,” Jacobs said.

The Italian crossed the line in 9.8 seconds yesterday to capture the first 100m medal ever for the country better known for its football prowess. Pietro Mennea won the 200m at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and Livio Berruti won that race at the 1960 Games in Rome.

Even in a contest with no clear favourites — American Ronnie Baker was a candidate and China’s Su Bingtian ran a shocking 9.83s in the semis — Jacobs came from nowhere.

He topped America’s Fred Kerley, a 400m runner who moved down in distance because he saw a medal chance, and Canada’s Andre DeGrasse, who adds another 100m bronze to the one he won Rio.

Kerley finished second in 9.84s and DeGrasse was next at 9.89s.

“I really don’t know anything about him,” Kerley said of the new gold medallist. “He did a fantastic job.”

Jacobs’ path was made that much clearer because of who wasn’t in the race. The reigning world champion, Christian Coleman, is serving a ban for missed doping tests. The world leader in 2021 and the favourite to win the gold, Trayvon Bromell, didn’t make it out of the semi-finals.

Bolt, who has commandeered the Olympic and every other sprint stage since 2008, is retired.

He was a sure thing in all nine Olympic sprints he ran from the Beijing Games — a stretch of dominance that redefined track and field but also left a gaping hole in the sport when he called it a career.

“He changed athletics forever,” Jacobs said. “I’m the one who won the Olympics after him. That’s unbelievable. But drawing comparisons, I don’t think it’s the time now.”

Bolt’s world record is 9.58.

Before Sunday, Jacobs’ personal best was 9.95s.

“I mean, 9.8 from the Italian guy?” DeGrasse said. “I didn’t expect that. I thought my main competition would be the Americans.”

Nope. The Italians.

Perhaps the only person at the track who really knew the new champ was the man who hugged him after he crossed the finish line. That was Gianmarco Tamberi, the Italian high jumper who tied Qatari’s Mutaz Essa Barshim for gold.

Tamberi and Barshim ended their evening-long jump-fest in a dead heat — a rare result that appeared headed for a jump-off to decide gold and sliver. But after huddling with an official who told them two gold medals were possible, Barshim — the two-time world champion who won silver in Rio and bronze in London — agreed to call it a tie for first.

Bedlam ensued.

Barshim ran up to the stands to celebrate. Tamberi covered his face with his hands and rolled on the ground. “I was in ecstasy,” he said. He was clearly a man looking for someone to hug.

He found just the person a few minutes later when Jacobs crossed the line first. Tamberi leaped into the broad-chested sprinter’s arms and curled his own arm around Jacobs’ bald head.

“My heart was exploding,” Tamberi said.

Only a night before, they had been sitting in Jacobs’ tiny room in the Olympic village playing video games.

“And we said, ‘Can you imagine if we win?”” Jacobs said. “(We said) ‘No, no, no. It’s impossible. Don’t think this.’”

Not long after the two golds were secure, Italy’s premier, Mario Draghi, stated the obvious — “You’re honouring Italy,” he said — and announced that he would be inviting the athletes to his office, the Chigi Palace, when they return home.

Theirs was one of many beautiful moments on a most unusual Day 3 of the Olympic track meet. Another highlight came from Venezuelan Yulimar Rojas’ toppling of a 26-year-old world record in the triple jump. Her new mark is 15.67m.

Other vignettes didn’t involve medals.

Luca Kozak tripped on a hurdle and looked over three lanes to see that a Jamaican opponent, Yanique Thompson, had suffered the same fate. Kozak helped her back to her feet.

Later, in the men’s 800 semifinals, American Isaiah Jewett got tangled up with Botswana’s Nijel Amos, and the two went tumbling to the ground. They helped each other up and jogged slowly together towards the finish line.

“I don’t want any bad blood because that’s what heroes do - they show their humanity through who they are and show they’re good people,” Jewett said.

The day’s other gold medal went to Gong Lijao of China, who bested American Raven Saunders of the United States.

Saunders, who is Black and gay, wears an “Incredible Hulk” mask when she competes, closed out the medals ceremony by lifting her arms above her head and forming an “X” with her wrists.

“It’s the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet,” she explained.

All memorable.