Welcome, once again, to the greatest show on earth. As first steps into the post-Bolt Olympic universe go, this men’s 100m final was a strange affair, an occasion that seemed somehow a little less vivid than those images of the recent past. So this is what it feels like when the future stops happening.
There are always details in sport that get lost once we know the final outcome. Let the record show that for two and a half hours there was a genuine possibility the heir to Usain Bolt’s 13-year residency as the fastest human on the planet would turn out to be a 5ft 8in Chinese man who turns 32 this month.
As Su Bingtian crossed the line in first place in the third semi-final, around 7.23pm Tokyo time, he roared and screamed and punched the air. His time, 9.83 seconds, wasn’t just a stellar, paradigm-shifting personal best. It made Su, at a stroke, the fastest man on the start line at the Tokyo 2020 final, driven by a thrilling surge of power in the first 50 metres, neck muscles flared, feet battering the track. This was speed that just came, instantly, then seemed to die a little at the end, like a diesel surge.
Su deserves great credit for this astonishing late career bloom. You might think you had a good lockdown: losing the odd pound, maybe doing some yoga. Su had an incredible lockdown. Just before the pandemic he was clocking 10.21sec at the world championships. At London 2012 he had run 0.41 of a second slower than Bolt. Two years in from those world championships in Doha, Su had somehow put an entire Bolt’s-length between the 29-year-old him and this 31-year-old version.
It turned out to be the high point of his night, and probably his athletic life. Thrust into the role of alpha dog, tracked by the cameras at the start line, wreathed suddenly in his own sense of destiny, Su finished last. But then this was a strange race all round.
Trayvon Bromell, many people’s favourite to enact some kind of legacy-takeover, had already exited in the semis. Who would carry this final? Who did we have here to flood into that charisma-void, the glamour-gap, as the lights dipped and the seven finalists emerged to a booming drum break?
In the event Marcell Jacobs of Italy took gold, Fred Kerley silver and Andre De Grasse bronze in a fine, even race. The winning time was 0.01 faster than a creaking Bolt had managed in Rio.
Jacobs’s story is a fine, heartening tale of talent realised over time. And while it would be unfair on these athletes to dwell on the slight sense of emptiness, of absent spectacle, it would also be dishonest not to admit it was there. If only because this event has so often offered at least a pretence of something epic and unanswerably vital.
The women’s 100m gave us a brilliantly high-grade race on Saturday. Women’s sprinting is in a powerful place right now. The men, though, have had to carry something else, the title of fastest human projected down the years as one of those shared measures of human capacity. Through the last century the nudging down of that mark felt like a measure of progress, an arm of the space race, a spur of the Cold War.
There have been distinct tonal phases in men’s sprint. The eye-popping machismo of the Maurice Greene era, sprinting as a form of hand-to-hand combat, gave way under Bolt’s aura to a sense of these occasions as an expression of joy, of extreme athletic showmanship. For three Games we came to witness an event, the Bolt residency. There he goes, out there running through the old favourites, the surge, the bow and arrow, the total destruction of the rest of the field.
The tone has shifted in recent times. These are stripped back performers now, all business, no show. Before the races here Kerley kept his eyes shut. De Grasse was opaque behind his sun goggles. And probably, who knows, the 100m is done in some way, the idea of male sprinting power as some kind of register of basic human worth a little absurd, foolish, boomer-ish, old hat.
For a start, just read down the all-time list of fastest times. Nobody in this final was on it for a start. Bromell pops up at equal 20th with 9.77 in Florida two months ago. Christian Coleman, currently banned, ran the 15th fastest time of all time in 2019. Otherwise there’s nothing more recent than 2015 in the entire top 35. Almost all of those super-times came between 2007 and 2015.
This is Bolt-Gay-Blake-Powell-Gatlin territory. And of those five only one, Bolt, has never served a doping-related ban of any kind. Bolt still has the three fastest times run, and seven of the top 15. He basically redeems this thing, arms spread wide on top of that mountain of corrupted human endeavour.
It is an oppressive dynamic. Every 100m race is run against the past to some degree, those glorious, tarnished shadows. And right now that history feels a little distant, a place of juiced-up times and a single outlandish talent. Probably this was always a dream, or at least, never quite the thing it was made to be.
On Sunday night that cheesy old moment of ultimacy was by no means the most spectacular thing to happen is this stadium as the women’s triple jump produced a stunning world-record finish and the men’s high jump a shared gold medal. But we have at least moved on, by one remove, from the age of Bolt – even if its light still seemed to dull the present just a little.