Olympics: Lamont Marcell Jacobs becomes the new 100m king with glory for Italy
Three weeks ago the sharpest casinos in Las Vegas, who know a thing or two about setting odds and plenty more besides, rated Lamont Marcell Jacobs as a 30-1 underdog to claim an Olympic 100m gold medal. Yet on a balmy and steadily more barmy Tokyo evening, they joined everyone else in being blindsided by a tattooed 26-year-old from Rome who inked his name permanently in the record books.
After Jacobs had powered to glory in 9.80sec, a European record, he unleashed a primordial roar and flexed his biceps, macho-man style. But it was his legs, and nerves, that made his impossible dream come true. This was the Italian’s first global final. But it was impossible to tell from his calm demeanour at the start, or by the way he tracked the American Fred Kerley before rushing past him like a bullet train 20 metres before the finish line.
Kerley, who took silver in 9.84, admitted later that he “really didn’t know anything” about the man on his inside. He was not alone. Andre De Grasse, who added another 100m bronze medal to his collection, admitted he never expected the Italian to go so quickly.
Could anyone blame them? Three years ago Jacobs was merely a promising long jumper. Two years ago he reached the semi-finals of the 100m at the world championships before fading. Now, suddenly, he was in orbit.
When Jacobs had calmed down, he revealed that on the eve of this Italian Super Sunday he had discussed with his compatriot Gianmarco Tamberi whether they could both win an Olympic title as they were playing on their PlayStation in the athletes’ village. After a brief discussion they agreed it was far too crazy to ever happen. Yet here they were, gold medallists jumping and hugging and high-fiving.
When even they believed such an idea was too fanciful, what chance did the rest of us have?
“It is amazing, it is fantastic, it is a dream, Olympic champion in the 100m, I have no words,” Jacobs admitted, his words racing every bit as fast as his legs. “It is a gold medal, it is forever, I am very happy. Watching Gianmarco was a massive boost. I though: ‘If he can do it, you can win a gold medal too.’
“I didn’t look right, I didn’t look left. I just focused on running as fast as possible. I wasn’t the favourite. But my start was great, then I had this burst of speed. I thought I could run 9.79 – but I was happy with 9.8.”
Jacobs cited two key changes on the path towards his staggering improvement. The first was a move to Rome three years ago, where he built a team around him that included a chiropractor, nutritionist and mental coach. Then, more recently, his mental coach persuaded him to get back in touch with his father, an African‑American who lives in Texas and to whom he rarely spoke since his parents had broken up when he was a baby.
“We had grown apart,” he added Jacobs, who was raised by his mother Viviana in Desenzano on the southern shore of Lake Garda. “We hadn’t talked for some time. But that gave me the energy and the will to be everything to be here today.”
Inevitably this 100m final felt very different – and not only because Jacobs was the first Italian to ever win the event. How could it not without the familiar sight of Usain Bolt, slicing and dicing through the field before beaming regally at the crowd? The Jamaican was an outlier among outliers, a genetic freak among genetic freaks. No wonder the Bolt supremacy lingered across three Olympic Games.
Without him, this final twisted with uncertainties. Could Su Bingtian, who had run an Asian record of 9.83 in his semi-final, repeat the trick two hours later? Would Jacobs, who had finished just behind him, find an extra gear? And could Britain’s Zharnel Hughes, who had won his semi-final in 9.98, step up again?
Sadly, the last question was answered all too quickly. Hughes, who is called the “Captain” by his former training partner Bolt because he is a qualified pilot, was unable to get off the runway after a false start.
Hughes said: “It wasn’t pressure. I wasn’t nervous. It’s just that my calf cramped up when I went up on ‘set’. It hurts a lot.”
Jacobs had no such malfunctions. And when he crossed the line, all the joy, amazement and pressure was released in a sonic boom across the Tokyo Stadium. “I just let go,” he said.
“It was a scream that expressed all the pain from the past. Now it was a scream of joy. As an athlete you can’t always win. I have lost a lot of times. But I have always turned up again trying to deliver a better performance. And now I can say I have a gold medal.”
Before he departed, he was asked where he was when Bolt had begun to wreck his symphony of destruction of the sprinting scene in Beijing 2008. “I was on the beach and watching the Olympics on TV,” he said, smiling. “I think I can recall every race because I watched them all so many times.”
Wisely, he sidestepped comparisons to the great Jamaican, saying: “He is the face of the entire sport, which he has changed forever. It’s not time to compare myself to him.” His response was word perfect. And suddenly both off the track and on, a sprinter who was barely known even inside track circles 24 hours previously, proved to have all the answers.