Great Jamaicans start to shift their sport out of Flo-Jo’s shadow
Minutes before the start of the women’s 100m final, the most keenly anticipated race at these Games, the lights fell and that familiar hush settled over the stadium. A helicopter buzzed overhead, a laser show played on the home straight, but everything else was still. The atmosphere felt charged with expectation.
When the lights came up again, so bright they almost hurt your eyes, there were the eight sprinters on the start line, four of them, in the middle lanes, among the quickest women in history, the Jamaican trio of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Elaine Thompson-Herah and Shericka Jackson, and Marie-Josee Ta Lou, from the Ivory Coast.
Away ahead of them was the finish line, and beyond that, the digital clock, showing “0.0’ on the top line, and beneath it “WR: 10.49”, just like it has at every major championships since that world record was set by Florence Griffith Joyner at the US Olympic trials in 1988. The big screen above and behind it showed her Olympic record too, 10.62sec, set at the Seoul Games that year. For the past 33 years, through seven Games, these times have been out of the reach of the greatest female sprinters. They might as well have been etched in a stone tablet as shown on a digital display.
These women on the start line were not just racing each other. They were racing marks that have become a millstone for their sport, set before a lot of them were even born by a sprinter who many people, including her own former training partners, rivals and teammates, believe was cheating, although her family and friends have always denied it.
Either way, the men’s 100m record has been broken 12 times, and the men’s Olympic record three times, while Griffith-Joyner’s have stood, immutable until now. Before this final, Fraser-Pryce had already run 10.63 in June, making her the second-fastest woman in history, Thompson-Herah did a 10.71 in July, Jackson a 10.77.
As the sport tries to find the best way to move on from the Usain Bolt era, these records have come back into reach thanks to faster tracks, like the Mondo WS surface they are using here, and new running shoe technology, which, some coaches say, could be worth as much as an extra 10th of a second. For one of the contenders, illegal help too. Nigeria’s Blessing Okagbare ran 10.89 in July and would probably have been on that startline if the Athletics Integrity Unit had not announced earlier in the day that she tested positive for Human Growth Hormone.
Okagbare was not the only one missing; the US champion, Sha’Carri Richardson, would surely have been in the final if she hadn’t tested positive for marijuana after the US trials and so would Great Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith if she had not injured her hamstring.
Their absence meant the race came down to a head-to-head between the two great Jamaican champions, Fraser-Pryce, 34, in her penultimate year in the sport, and Thompson-Herah, 29, the defending champion. Everything about the way this season, and these Olympic heats, had played out suggested something special was coming. The question was which of them was going to do it.
By 60m, we had an answer, Thompson-Herah responded so strongly to Fraser-Pryce’s fast start that she won herself a lead Fraser-Pryce, who was suddenly feeling all that pressure of chasing the race, was not able to claw back. As Thompson-Herah closed in on the finishing line, she felt comfortable enough that she was able to raise one arm into the air for the final few strides.
She did not exactly mean it this way, but she happened to be pointing towards that big screen, where the clock had stopped on 10.61sec. Griffith Joyner’s Olympic record had disappeared and was replaced, at last, by a new mark.
All records matter, but that one matters more than most. These women, and the women who came before them, have spent their careers being held to an impossible standard. It was more than a decade ago that their Jamaican compatriot Veronica Campbell-Brown, who had some memorable duels with Fraser-Pryce in the early years of her career, said she felt that the fact the records were so far off meant female athletes did not “get the respect that the males do because they are capable of breaking the record and people are excited to see them run because they know the possibility of breaking the record is close”.
Now Thompson-Herah had done it. “Going into the final I didn’t have a time in mind, I was just trying to execute my best race” she said. “I wasn’t looking at any record, but eventually those times will be erased, even if it takes five years, because a lot of women are coming up, rising. For me to run this Olympic record sends out a signal that anything is possible.”
Her winning time was only (only!) the second-quickest in history. That world record is still there, another leap on again. Whether or not Flo-Jo was doping, that one was set in an illegal tail wind that was not clocked because the anemometer was faulty.
Some day, though, that will go. Stride by stride, split second by split second, the sport is starting to move on at last.