This article is part of our Tokyo Olympics series.
Men’s Olympic sprints traffic heavily in machismo and self-assurance, so an incredulous victor is a rarity on the track. Rarer still is the bewildered champion who hails from a country with no record of producing an event finalist. But there was Italy’s Lamont Marcell Jacobs1 on Sunday night, telling reporters, “I think I need four or five years to realize and understand what’s happening.”
He wasn’t the only one surprised by the result in the men’s 100-meter final; some sportsbooks had installed Jacobs at 20-to-1 odds before the Olympics and 8-to-1 odds entering the semis. Silver medalist Fred Kerley and bronze medalist Andre De Grasse intimated they essentially knew nothing about the 26-year-old converted long jumper — his Instagram handle is “crazylongjumper” — who before 2021 hadn’t broken the 10-second barrier or registered a figure better than 200th all time. Who could blame them? It’s uncertain that Jacobs would have even been in the field had the Olympics been held in 2020. But he picked the perfect time to peak, clocking his three fastest times in successive runs in Tokyo: 9.94 seconds in the opening heat, 9.84 in the semis, 9.80 in the final.
All three medalists — Jacobs, Kerley, De Grasse — ran personal bests in the final, but only the Italian took the crown of fastest man on the planet. At least for now, he is the heir to the Usain Bolt legacy. That legacy, though, is a bit slower than it used to be. Times in the 100-meters just haven’t reached the same echelon since the greatest sprinter of all time hung up his cleats.
The fastest time produced since Bolt retired has been 9.76 seconds, set in 2019 by U.S. sprinter Christian Coleman. From 2008, when Bolt first broke 10 seconds, through his final season in 2017, there were 13 times faster than that. We would expect times to be at their best when a once-in-a-generation talent like Bolt is tearing up the track, but his competitors during that era were faster, too, and not just when racing against him. American Tyson Gay broke the 9.7 barrier in 2009, and in 2012, Jamaican Yohan Blake also hit 9.69 — and they each did it in a race run without Bolt.
In timed athletics, there can be an assumption that records need to be rewritten before the ink dries. Just Tuesday in Tokyo, the Olympic record in the men’s 400-meter hurdles was broken by all three of the medalists.2 Earlier at these Games, the Olympic record in the 100-meter backstroke was broken in three consecutive heats. But Bolt’s world record of 9.58 seconds and his Olympic record of 9.63 seconds feel fairly secure. Jacobs’s winning time of 9.80 seconds was actually a hundredth of a second faster than the gold-winning time set by an aging Bolt in 2016,3 but it is tied for just the 44th best all-time mark.
Not that this year’s field even consisted of the strongest competition to challenge Bolt’s record times. Of the finalists, only two4 had top-100 times entering Tokyo. Coleman couldn’t compete in the Olympics due to a suspension for missing drug tests. American standout Trayvon Bromell was supposed to fill the void left by Coleman, having clocked 9.77 seconds in June for the fastest time of the year, but the betting favorite failed to advance out of the semifinals.
Jacobs finished 19th at the 2019 world championships but emerged victorious in Tokyo on a night the AP called “one of the most unusual the sport has ever seen.” He may have been as surprised as anyone when he crossed the finish line first, but he and his fellow sprinters are all still chasing Bolt.