Olympic Track and Field Thrilled Us Yet Again
The Tokyo Games reminded us why athletics remains the greatest show on earth
The 32nd Olympiad may have concluded, but track and field fans have reason to rejoice: since the Tokyo Games were postponed because of the pandemic, we now only have a mere three years to wait until the next time our sport once again has the world in thrall.
Or maybe we won’t even have to wait that long. Perhaps the stupendous feats that we’ve just witnessed in Tokyo might inspire thousands of newly minted trackheads to tune in to next year’s World Championships in Eugene, Oregon. After the past week and a half, I can assert (without a trace of bias) that athletics has once again made a strong case for itself as the highest form of drama, rife with heroes and villains. Iago has nothing on that asshole who knocked over all the water bottles in the men’s marathon. (The runner in question, France’s Morhad Amdouni, claimed it wasn’t intentional.)
There was plenty of thrilling track action in Tokyo despite the fact that, for the first time since 2004, the Olympics had to make do without the electric presence of Usain Bolt—the Jamaican sprinter who retired in 2017 and deprived his sport of its most charismatic showman and striker of poses. Not that Jamaica didn’t leave its mark on the sprints anyway; in the women’s 100-meters the island nation swept the podium behind Elaine Thompson-Herah’s Olympic record time of 10.61 and also owned the 4×100. On the men’s side, meanwhile, it was only fitting that, in the first Olympics of the post-Bolt era, the winner of the 100 was Marcell Jacobs, an unheralded Italian whose greatest triumph, pre-Tokyo, was a win at the European Indoor Championships in the 60 meters. It was as though the track gods recognized the futility of even trying to fill Bolt’s shoes and decided to bestow the title of “World’s Fastest Human” on an anonymous aspirant. How about . . . this guy?
Certain columnists lamented the men’s 100 as a disappointing anticlimax. Not me. I couldn’t help but feel exhilarated when Jacobs, after crossing the line, ran straight into the arms of his compatriot Gianmarco Tamberi, who had just won a gold medal of his own in the men’s high jump minutes earlier.
For years, Tamberi was known among track aficionados for wearing a full beard on only one side of his face. Rather than questionable grooming habits, the 29-year-old will henceforth be famous for sharing the gold with Mutaz Barshim, 30, of Qatar after both men topped out at 2.37 meters and agreed to call it a day. That’s right: two winners in the same event! Depending on where you sat, it was either the ultimate display of Olympic sportsmanship, or further proof that competition-averse millennials are ruining everything.
If you belonged in the latter camp, you could take heart that at least the next generation was already bringing it. Here was Jakob Ingebrigsten, the 20-year-old Norwegian wunderkind, whose single earring and frosted tips gave him the aura of a ‘90s boy band idol, but whose killer racing instincts helped him finally triumph over Kenya’s Timothy Cheruiyot in the 1,500-meters.
And while this was not a particularly successful Olympics for American track athletes—for the first time ever, the men’s team failed to win a single individual gold on the oval—Sydney McLaughlin and Athing Mu were two sterling exceptions. McLaughlin, who is 22 and has one million followers on Instagram, beat her Team USA rival Daliliah Muhammad by .12 seconds in the 400-meter hurdles, to win in 51.46—a new world record. Mu, for her part, proved that she is currently peerless in the 800 meters; the 19-year-old, who may have supplanted David Rudisha as the track athlete with the most graceful stride, led her race from the gun and never looked particularly strained, negative splitting her way to glory. Mu would go on to anchor an invincible U.S. women’s 4×400 relay team that also featured McLaughlin, Muhammad, and Allyson Felix. They won by an absurd margin of nearly four seconds, garnering Felix her eleventh Olympic medal, making her the most decorated female Olympian in the history of track and field. Here, at least, Team USA looked as good as ever.
Thankfully, the dreaded super shoe debate didn’t really grab headlines at the Games. In fact, and in a delicious irony, it was now the track itself that suddenly posed a threat to the historical integrity of athletics records. Apparently, the latest iteration of top-of-the-line Mondo surfacing includes small pockets of air that, a designer for the company claimed, provide a performance enhancing “trampoline effect” for the athletes. First the shoes. Now the track. The purists just can’t win.
Eliud Kipchoge, on the other hand, proved, once again, that he could win. Coming into Sunday’s marathon, there was some question of whether the defending Olympic champ and greatest marathoner in history still had the magic. The 36-year-old Kenyan provided a definitive answer three quarters of the way into the race by making an aggressive move and more or less instantly ditching what remained of the lead pack. In races past, Kipchoge has gradually whittled down the competition until it’s only him and one or two other brave souls clinging to dreams of dethroning the king. In Sapporo, he dispatched all of his challengers in one fell swoop, as though he’d decided that, this time, he didn’t want any company over the final miles.
“I wanted to create a space to show the world that this is a beautiful race,” Kipchoge said afterwards. “I wanted to test my fitness, I wanted to test how I’m feeling. I wanted to show that we have hope in the future.”
If it were anybody else, this messianic tone would be beyond obnoxious. (Hope for the future? Has the Boss Man read the latest IPCC report?) But when you’re as good as Kipchoge, you’ve earned the right to speak in aphorisms.
Still, after a year and a half in which the marathon has become the metaphor of choice for getting through the pandemic, I’m not sure that Kipchoge is the most obvious source for inspiration. His image is too immaculate for those of us futzing around in this vale of tears.
Maybe that’s part of why Molly Seidel’s race struck such a chord—at least among American fans. Seidel, who has been candid about the demons that she has battled in the past, shocked the racing world by hanging on for bronze in torturous, muggy conditions. In becoming only the third American woman to medal in an Olympic marathon, she belied her underdog status by taking the race to the fastest women on the planet. In the end, Seidel finished less than 30 seconds behind Peres Jepchirchir and Brigid Kosgei, the two Kenyan women who, respectively, hold the world records in the half and full marathons.
As she crossed the finish, Seidel screamed in triumph and (presumably) relief. She’d just gone through a certain kind of hell, but she’d managed to endure. If that isn’t world-class entertainment, I don’t know what is.