A lot has been made of the lack of talent in the men’s 100m category. As one seasoned administrator put it a few days ago, “it’s hardly a vintage crop”. The big names are gone, the shorter times with them. And while it is still a High Demand Event, to use Tokyo2020 parlance, the selection of “all sorts” spoke of a lack of depth. By extension, then, the 4x100m relay would be a weak spectacle. Oh, how wrong that was.
This was a thriller, one you can stick alongside any of the modern era. Drama from the blocks to the finish, but especially the finish. Newham’s Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake and Milano’s Filippo Tortu jostling at breakneck speeds, shoulder to shoulder yet unwilling to acknowledge each other’s presence until the death. The (blink of an) eye test had Tortu ahead by a fraction. The photo and clock confirmed it. Italy took the relay gold, Great Britain 0.01 seconds slower in silver.
Behind them was the scrap within a scrap. Zhigiang Wu (China) and Oblique Seville (Jamaica) were trading strides for third before Andre De Grasse rode through like the Olympic champion he is to put them in their places (fourth and fifth) sealing bronze for Canada.
We seem to have moved on from the era of specialists 100m runners. Or maybe we haven’t: maybe they’re just all women. As Jamaica ransacked the rest of their field to take the women’s 4x100m, you couldn’t help think back to their men’s foursome who bagged golds at London 2012 and Rio 2016. Here at Tokyo 2020, only the shadow of Yohan Blake was a reminder to that great past. The time after Usain Bolt was always going to come, but only now that he is gone do we realise how much of the sport, and how much of what was adored of modern male Jamaican sprinting he took with him.
You can usually get a good gauge on how a sprint relay is going to pan out by the individual event. The 100m final here was an unorthodox blend of 400m runners and 60m dashers, only to be won by Marcell Jacobs, an Italian long-jumper who decided on a whim to ditch the sandpit for a bit more runway. That was just a field of eight. With a team of these off-broadway characters staggered around eight lanes of this Olympic track, it felt like throwing 32 cats in a room and seeing which four barked loudest.
And yet, over the last couple of weeks in these pandemic Games, the best moments are the ones that have taken us by surprise. Perhaps you could say that about all Games - heck, all sporting competition for that matter. But, really, what’s more unpredictable than the fastest blokes in the world running for eternal glory while passing a baton around?
Its chaos knocked out the United States on Friday, the favourites falling because their alternates relayed like they’d never met before. That meant 100m silver-medalist Fred Kerley did not take to track alongside Jacobs, who took the second leg, and 200m winner De Grasse (he also took bronze in the 100m).
Ghana were disqualified for veering out of their lane. Japan, bronze medalists at the last World Championships, didn’t even finish. Not that anyone noticed given how focussed we were on that line, then that big screen and timer. The wait for Italy’s confirmation felt as long as the 37.50 seconds they ran.
“I don’t have any tears left,” beamed Tortu, eyes red, heart full. “I need to recharge them for tomorrow because I need them more for the anthem.”
Jacobs, a second gold to his name, couldn’t help himself: “This is the year of Italy, this is our year. We won the Eurovision, we won the football European championships, we won five gold medals”.
Great Britain were dismayed in the immediate aftermath. But a few minutes later, they had come around to the silver they will put around their necks on Saturday.
“We smashed it,” said Richard Kilty, who established the British lead with an exemplary third leg on the bend. “It was the third-fastest time we’ve ever ran as a quartet!” The sense being that, well, how much more could they have done? “It’s one of the best moments of our life, no matter what way we look at it.”
It has been a tough time for Team GB in the track and field. But the success of Mitchell-Blake, Kilty, Chijindu Ujah, and Zharnel Hughes will give them a sense that these Games have been of worth. As they posed to celebrate alongside the bronze team of the women’s 4x100 team, and the silver that Laura Muir fought for, a testing week can end with some cheer.
No doubt the very British post-mortem will come, both behind closed doors and in these pages. But when quality lacks, courage takes over. And to extend that beyond Great Britain, some of the best of what we’ve seen has come from events and individuals we expected little from
At an Olympic Games that has spent a lot of time apologising for itself politically and on grounds of performance, the men’s 4x100m was a reminder that greatness can come from sources that may not seem great. But give them a chance, and toss them a baton, and who knows.
The last day of athletics is on Saturday, but the end of the sprints always feels like the closing of a very specific chapter. The very events that end so soon are finally done.
Perhaps the history books won’t recall Tokyo 2020’s short distances fondly. Some of these names will be forgotten without prompts by the time Paris2024 comes around. But their stories and these circumstances will carry forward indefinitely. In a world that is a long way from perfect, the greatest imperfections among us thrived.
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