As a delirious Elaine Thompson-Herah lay on the track looking up at the twinkling lights of Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce stood with her hands on her hips staring at the big screen, waiting to find out whether she had won silver or bronze.
It was silver, in a Jamaican one-two-three with Shericka Jackson taking bronze, but it was little consolation. Fraser-Pryce came here to wrestle back the 100m Olympic crown she had won in Beijing and London. Instead her teammate and long-time rival Thompson-Herah defended her Rio title emphatically with an Olympic record 10.61sec, the second fastest time in history.
That feat was almost more astounding than the gold medal. Florence Griffith Joyner’s time of 10.62 had stood since the Seoul Games in 1988, but it always looked in danger this week as a rapid set of heats and semi-finals hinted at a thrilling final to come. And how it delivered.
The two were drawn next to each other in lanes three and four. When Fraser-Pryce came out of her drive phase she had the lead and it all seemed to be going to form. The 34-year-old’s career is enjoying an autumn bloom and her world lead time this season of 10.63, combined with victory over Thompson-Herah in the Jamaican trials, made her the favourite coming to the Games.
But once Thompson-Herah lifted her head and opened her stride, she pulled level. She possess a springy style which looks almost like she’s jumping down the track, and the 29-year-old’s younger legs bounced into the distance in the final 30m as Fraser-Pryce began to tense.
The gap was enough that even before she’d crossed the line Thompson-Herah was pointing to the Jamaican team’s contingent in the stands and letting out a howl. Then she was screaming, jumping, clutching her forehead in disbelief, perhaps more at the time than the victory – she has been here before of course. It was all too much, and she collapsed in a heap.
Jackson was delighted with her bronze medal in a personal best 10.76, behind Fraser-Pryce’s 10.74 to complete the Jamaican sweep. Britain’s Daryll Neita finished eighth in 11.12, after Dina Asher-Smith had earlier missed out on the final and withdrawn from the 200m with an injured hamstring.
Thompson-Herah was only an average collegiate sprinter but talks of how, in 2014, her coach Stephen Francis pulled her aside and told her she could achieve something great if she truly committed. “He told me not to be scared of people, be less serious, smile more and shake it up,” she once said. “I don't know what it was but Stephen saw something in me that I did not see.”
After the on-track celebrations died down, Thompson-Herah revealed doubts over her form after a recent Achilles injury had inspired her. “God is amazing,” she said. “I've been struggling. I see all the bad comments, I see everything. I use them as my motivation. Two months ago, maybe a month and a half, I didn’t think I would be here (because of injury). I held my composure. I believed in myself, I believed in God. The team around me is very strong, I get the support and I believe in myself.
“There’s confidence to work hard. I didn’t expect to run this fast, even though I felt good through the rounds. Behind this 10.6 there’s a lot of nerves but I told myself ‘you can do this, you’ve done this before, execute’.”
There is one obvious last achievement in her career yet to be unlocked. Could she one day break Griffith Joyner’s 10.49 world record? “I think I could have gone faster if I wasn’t pointing and celebrating, really,” she said. “I can’t remember but I knew I was clear, that I won, so I started to celebrate too early. It’s a work in progress. Anything is possible. Hopefully, one day I can unleash that time.”
Fraser-Pryce was philosophical. She is an extraordinary woman: an academic, a mother, an Olympic champion. She will be 37 at the next Games in Paris and it seems unlikely we will see her again on this stage, but given what we know about Fraser-Pryce it would be foolhardy to rule it out.
“It definitely wasn’t the race I wanted in terms of the technical part of it,” she said. “I don’t find excuses. As an athlete you have to show up and perform regardless of what happens. I had a stumble with I think my third step and I don’t think I ever recovered but I’m happy to be able to come here and represent and compete for the championship.
“It’s always a plus when you come and give everything and you walk away with whatever you have and you move on to the next one. The legacy we have in Jamaica is an incredible one and I’m hoping that no matter what happens, our athletes can draw inspiration from it, be it Elaine running an Olympic record or myself coming to a fourth Olympic Games.”
Neita was disappointed with her performance. The 24-year-old managed the unwanted achievement of setting a slower time with each passing round, unable to rediscover the pace that earned her a personal best 10.96 in the heats.
“It's great to make the final. This performance doesn't represent where I'm at,” she said. “I'm still processing. I've ticked a lot of boxes for me, it's the Olympics, it's still an achievement. I'm meant to be here, this is where I belong. It's been incredible, the team around me, the best coach, friends. I'm really excited about what the future holds.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies