The 32nd Olympic may have come to an end, but track and field enthusiasts have reason to rejoice: because the Tokyo Games were postponed due to the epidemic, we now only have three years until our sport enthrals the globe once more.
Perhaps we won’t have to wait quite as long. Thousands of freshly minted trackheads may be inspired to tune in to next year’s World Championships in Eugene, Oregon, as a result of the incredible performances we’ve just witnessed in Tokyo. After the previous week and a half, I can confidently state (without a hint of bias) that athletics has once again proven itself to be the highest form of drama, replete with heroes and villains. Iago is nothing compared to the jerk who threw all the water bottles over during the men’s marathon. (The runner in question, Morhad Amdouni of France, maintained it wasn’t on purpose.)
Despite the fact that the Olympics were held without the electrifying presence of Usain Bolt—the Jamaican sprinter who retired in 2017 and bereft his sport of its most charismatic showman and pose striker—there was plenty of entertaining track action in Tokyo. Not that Jamaica didn’t make an impression in the sprints; the island nation swept the podium in the women’s 100 metres behind Elaine Thompson-Olympic Herah’s record time of 10.61 seconds, and also won the 4100 metres. On the men’s side, it seemed only right that Marcell Jacobs, an unsung Italian whose greatest achievement prior to Tokyo was a win at the European Indoor Championships in the 60 metres, won the 100 metres in the first Olympics in the post-Bolt era. It was as if the track gods realised that trying to fill Bolt’s shoes would be futile, so they bestowed the title of “World’s Fastest Human” on an unknown wannabe. So, how about this guy?
Several columnists bemoaned the men’s 100, calling it a letdown. I’m not one of them. I couldn’t help but feel ecstatic when Jacobs sprinted right into the arms of his countrymen Gianmarco Tamberi after crossing the finish line, who had just won a gold medal in the men’s high jump minutes before.
Tamberi had a reputation among track fans for only growing a full beard on one side of his face for years. Rather than being known for his dubious grooming practises, the 29-year-old will be remembered for sharing the gold with Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim, 30, after both men reached 2.37 metres and agreed to call it a day. That’s true, there were two winners in the same competition! It was either the greatest demonstration of Olympic sportsmanship, or additional proof that competition-averse millennials are ruining everything, depending on where you sat.
If you were in the latter side, you could be encouraged by the fact that the following generation was already doing so. Jakob Ingebrigsten, the 20-year-old Norwegian wunderkind, whose single earring and frosted tips gave him the aura of a ‘90s boy band star, but whose killer racing skills enabled him finally defeat Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot in the 1,500 metres.
While American track competitors did not have a very successful Olympics—for the first time ever, the men’s team did not win a single individual gold on the oval—Sydney McLaughlin and Athing Mu stood out. In the 400-meter hurdles, McLaughlin, who is 22 and has one million Instagram followers, beat Team USA rival Daliliah Muhammad by.12 seconds to win in 51.46, a new world record. Mu, for one, demonstrated that she is now unrivalled in the 800 metres; the 19-year-old, who may have displaced David Rudisha as the track athlete with the most elegant stride, led from the start and never seemed fatigued, negative splitting her way to victory. Mu went on to anchor an undefeated American women’s 4×400 relay team that included McLaughlin, Muhammad, and Allyson Felix. They won by over four seconds, giving Felix her eleventh Olympic medal and establishing her as the most decorated female Olympian in track and field history. At the very least, Team USA appeared to be in top form.
Thankfully, the dreaded super shoe controversy did not dominate the Olympics. In fact, in a delightful irony, the track itself was now posing a threat to the historical integrity of athletic records. According to the latest edition of top-of-the-line Mondo surfacing, microscopic pockets of air give a performance-enhancing “trampoline effect” for the athletes, according to a designer for the firm. First the shoes. Now for the music. Purists just cannot win.
Eliud Kipchoge, on the other side, shown his ability to win once more. There was some doubt going into Sunday’s marathon whether the defending Olympic champion and best runner in history still had the magic. Three quarters of the way through the race, the 36-year-old Kenyan offered a definite answer by making an aggressive move and effectively ditching the rest of the lead pack. Kipchoge has cut down the field in previous races until it’s only him and one or two more courageous souls clinging to hopes of dethroning the monarch. He despatched all of his competitors in one fell swoop in Sapporo, as if he’d decided that he didn’t want any company over the closing miles this time.
Afterward, Kipchoge remarked, “I wanted to create a space to show the world that this is a beautiful event.” “I wanted to put my fitness to the test, and I wanted to see how I felt. I wanted to demonstrate that there is hope for the future.”
This messianic tone would be annoying if it came from anybody else. (Do you have hope for the future? Is the Boss Man familiar with the most recent IPCC report?) When you’re as good as Kipchoge, however, you’ve earned the right to use aphorisms.
Even again, after a year and a half of the marathon becoming the go-to metaphor for surviving the pandemic, I’m not convinced Kipchoge is the most apparent source of inspiration. For those of us stumbling around in this valley of tears, his image is far too perfect.
Maybe that’s why Molly Seidel’s race struck such a chord with fans in the United States. Seidel, who has been open about her personal demons, stunned the racing world by holding on for bronze in excruciatingly hot and humid conditions. She defied her underdog position by taking the race to the world’s fastest women, becoming only the third American woman to medal in an Olympic marathon. Seidel finished fewer than 30 seconds behind Peres Jepchirchir and Brigid Kosgei, two Kenyan women who hold the half and full marathon world records, respectively.
Seidel yelled triumphantly and (probably) relieved when she reached the finish line. She’d just been through a particular type of hell, but she’d made it through. I’m not sure what else to call it if that isn’t world-class entertainment.