For more than a decade, one man reigned supreme in the men’s 100-meter dash. He swept Olympic gold medals and world championships, racing at a legendary level that no one else could match.
Now Usain Bolt is retired, and his absence at the Tokyo Olympics gave way to a deep, determined field Sunday, all fighting for his title as the fastest man in the world. Who would be the one to take up the mantle? Would it be one of the Americans? Canadian superstar Andre De Grasse? Akani Simbine of South Africa?
Enter … Italian sprinter Lamont Marcell Jacobs?
Yes, in stunning fashion, it was an unheralded Italian — who was born in El Paso, Texas — who took gold in the first Olympic 100-meter final of the post-Bolt era, winning with a personal-best time of 9.80 seconds. American Fred Kerley took the silver in 9.84, and De Grasse of Canada earned bronze.
Jacobs not only shocked the world; He surprised himself, too.
“It’s incredible,” the 26-year-old said in English after the race. “My real dream is arrive here and run a final. We run a final and we win a final. It’s amazing. I have no words (to) describe this moment.”
Jacobs recorded the third-best time in the semifinals, but he was almost a complete unknown — even to his fellow competitors.
“I really ain’t know nothing about him,” Kerley said.
“I thought my main competition would be the Americans,” De Grasse added. “I knew the Americans were going to bring it. (Jacobs’ win) really shocked me and surprised me, so really congrats to him. He did his thing. He came out of the blue.”
In the weeks after the U.S. Olympic trials, it appeared that Trayvon Bromell would be the man to beat in Tokyo. He had run the two fastest times in the world in the 100 this year, before Olympic competition began.
Instead, Bromell bowed out in the semifinal round, failing to reach the final by a fraction of a second. And into his expected spot atop the Olympic podium stepped Jacobs, who finished 19th at the 2019 world championships.
The son of an Italian mother and an American father, Jacobs was born in El Paso but said he moved to Italy when he was 6 months old, after his parents separated. His father, who shares his name, was completely out of his life until they reconnected about a year ago, Jacobs said.
Jacobs said he has been thrilled to have his father back in his life, and that he knew Lamont Sr. was watching Sunday’s final, because he texted the Italian sprinter some words of encouragement before the race.
“I live all my life without Dad,” said Jacobs. “When people ask me ‘who is your dad?’ I don’t know, I don’t know. I tried to start a new relationship with him. For me, it was really important.”
With his shocking win Sunday, Jacobs became the first European man to win gold in the men’s 100 meters since Linford Christie of Great Britain in 1992. It capped a remarkable surge for the Italian, who had never run the race in fewer than 10 seconds prior to this year.
“I really worked hard with my mind,” Jacobs said, “because when I was arriving in the big moment, my legs don’t work really good.
“Now, my legs go really good when it’s a big moment.”
De Grasse said Jacobs’ win is an encouraging sign for track and field — proof of the international depth in the 100 meters, and that anyone is capable of winning at any time.
Jacobs, meanwhile, estimated it will take him four or five days for the experience to truly sink in. After 9.8 seconds of magic, he is now on the fast track to stardom — or, at the very least, to the outskirts of obscurity.
In a post-race interview, an American reporter asked Jacobs if he had any message for people in the United States who might be getting to know him for the first time. What should they know about him?
“Hey, here I am,” he said with a smile. “I am here.”