TOKYO—This is life after the giant flashbulb shadow of Usain Bolt. There was no one sprinter who could loom over everyone, no godlike miracle man. There was no overriding confidence, no flash of playful joy. Instead there were eight men who could do it on the day, five of whom were running in their first Olympics, and one of them was Andre De Grasse. He was running in Lane 9.
De Grasse was running from Lane 9 because the semis were full of jolts, and that was not ideal, not at all. De Grasse won bronze from Lane 9 in his first world championship in 2015, but part of the value of being in the middle is that extra charge of emotion or adrenaline that you feel from being in the fight. De Grasse steps up. That’s the rep, that’s the legend, that’s the history.
It happened anyway. Running in the outside lane, while the Nigerian in Lane 8 fell away and left De Grasse by himself, after a sluggish start, in an empty stadium, after injury-plagued years, on a muggy night at the Zombie Olympics: none of that made it easy. But De Grasse’s closing speed got him bronze in 9.90, a personal best by one one-hundredth of a second over his time in the heats. That closing speed will help in the 200, you’d think, but this was a medal. And it wasn’t guaranteed.
“I mean, to get back on the podium, it’s a great feeling,” said De Grasse, an hour after the race. “Especially, we didn’t know last year if this was even going to happen.”
But somehow, it didn’t necessarily feel like the signature event. In the men’s high jump, Italian Gianmarco Tamberi and Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim kept jumping higher and higher until they just agreed to split the gold medal. They are apparently great friends, and they embraced, and Tamberi especially came apart, crying and laughing and rolling on the track, convulsing with emotion.
“I look at him, he looks at me, and we know it,” said Barshim. “We just look at each other and we know, that is it, it is done. There is no need.”
Meanwhile, in the women’s triple jump Venezuela’s Yulimar Rojas bounded to a world record of 15.67 metres, and her joy was overflowing, and her competitors embraced her, too, as if they were sisters. And in the women’s shot put victory ceremony, Raven Saunders of the United States, an openly gay, two-toned hair bundle of honesty, justice and personality, held her hands in an X above her head to demonstrate “the intersection of where all oppressed people meet.”
And then there was the 100, which is supposed to be the big show, and it wasn’t like it failed to be interesting, not at all. It was just a little strange. The guy De Grasse lost to was Marcell Jacobs, an Italian ex-long jumper born in El Paso who had never run under 10 seconds before this year, and won this race in a 9.80, ahead of American Fred Kerley at 9.94. Tamberi embraced him after the race, too. Was Jacobs real? That was the eternal question in track and field before the global anti-doping apparatus was put in a shoebox for most of 2020.
It’s a great story, if he is. The Bolt hangover was real, even if Bolt’s last individual 100 gold in Rio was a 9.81, with a body that was starting to refuse to listen to him; even if Jacobs, who was moved to Italy by his Italian mother when he was an infant, ran a 9.80.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” said De Grasse. “I mean, I felt like my main competition would be the Americans. I knew the Americans were gonna bring it. So that really shocked me and surprised me. So really, congrats to him. He did his thing, he came out of the blue. So, I’m really proud of him and just really shows that our sport is pulling in a good direction, because you never know who’s gonna be able to win. Any one of us can win on any given night. So, I’m really looking forward to just getting the chance to race him. I think that was my first time racing him, so definitely didn’t really game plan for him.”
It is unclear how De Grasse could have game-planned for anyone, other than to have a better start. Ah well. So many sports have suffered from the lack of fans here, even though, with Japan’s skyrocketing COVID-19 cases, no fans was the responsible decision. Imagine Japanese fans at the revered Budokan, cool kids at skateboarding, the thick-necked rejoicing at weightlifting. Alas.
But at the 100 it was deeply felt, because instead of the electric hush of tens of thousands and the crackling air, there was just the silence of a near-empty stadium, and some shouts from officials as the men tore down the track.
“Yeah, it was different,” said De Grasse. “I mean, it was to be honest, it was really tough for me because I really thrive off of the crowd. And like, it gets me going. So I really try to just pump myself up any way I can, like, listen to music, try to talk to myself, tell myself ‘Come on, let’s go.’
“But it was really hard for me, because usually I’m used to hearing that, the crowd noise. I thought it would have a little bit of crowd noise, the light show was pretty good. But I thought there would have a little bit of more like fake crowd noise or something like that. But definitely, it was really tough for me. So I’m looking forward to next year at world championships in Oregon when there’ll be fans again.”
A lot has changed since De Grasse and Bolt raced side by side in Rio, a breakneck grinning carnival show, and that’s sports and the world. Since 2016 De Grasse had two kids, had two seasons marred by hamstring injuries, finally got to rest during the pandemic, switched training groups to a Florida-based group coached by Rana Reider of Puma, and came into the 100-metre final in Lane 9, tied for the second-slowest semifinal time, in what for sprinting was a lonely quiet in a changing world.
And he still held onto the bottom step of the podium, even as sprinting’s names and faces and dynamics changed. On a fractious, joyful, unpredictable night at the track, in a very different Olympics, the one thing you could count on was Andre De Grasse.
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