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Brilliant 100 Final for Jamaica Sprint Queens Asks Big 'What If?' for US

Jessica Taylor PriceFeatured Columnist IJuly 31, 2021

Gold medalist Elaine Thompson-Herah stands between silver medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (left) and bronze medalist Shericka Jackson.
Gold medalist Elaine Thompson-Herah stands between silver medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (left) and bronze medalist Shericka Jackson.Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Moments before the women's 100-meter final at the Tokyo Olympics on Saturday, a tension hung in the air. The athletes swayed their hips back and forth, some looking worried, others looking calm, while a stadium light show hyped up the meet's first marquee event. In a highly anticipated final featuring eight of the fastest women in the world, their pent-up energy behind the starting line was palpable.

Then, just under 11 seconds later, it was all over. 

Elaine Thompson-Herah crossed the finish line in 10.61 seconds, defending her Olympic title, breaking the Olympic record and upsetting one of the best sprinters of all time. That sprinter, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, finished second. Shericka Jackson followed her, completing a medal sweep for Jamaica.

It was a demonstration of Jamaica's enduring dominance in women's sprinting and a huge win for Thompson-Herah. Still, it doesn't come without a caveat in the form of Sha'Carri Richardson's absence from the U.S. team. 

To be fair, the final was thrilling without the U.S. trials winner. The fastest final in Olympic history. The semifinal results told us it would be a tight race, with the track itself and the Tokyo heat proving conducive to those looking to break records.

Thompson-Herah did just that despite a minor headwind (0.6 meters per second), breaking a mark set by Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1988. The time came even as she slowed to point at the clock before she reached the finish line.

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While Fraser-Pryce's trademark start was on full display, pushing her ahead in the first few meters, Thompson-Herah quickly caught up and finished .13 seconds ahead.

The 1-2-3 Jamaica finish repeated the nation's 2008 Olympic feat. It was the first Games since 2008 where an American woman did not medal in the 100, an event in which the U.S. has not won gold since Gail Devers did so in 1996.

But was Saturday's final really a contest of the best in the world? When the race airs on prime-time U.S. television, fans and announcers will no doubt note the absence of Richardson, whose much-publicized suspension following a positive marijuana test kept her out of these Olympics.

Richardson's 10.72 time in April, with a helping but time-legal tailwind, was the third-fastest in the world this year entering the Games. It would have been remarkable to see what she would have been able to accomplish on this fast track and in such a deep field.

Sha'Carri Richardson's 2020 best of 10.72 would have placed her second in Saturday's Olympic 100 final.
Sha'Carri Richardson's 2020 best of 10.72 would have placed her second in Saturday's Olympic 100 final.Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Plus, the cameras would have loved the sprinter, whose trademark confidence made her victorious U.S. trials performance go viral. On Friday, Richardson tweeted "missing me yet?"—and we certainly were. 

So was the American team. The U.S. had fewer than two runners make the final for the first time since 2000. Teahna Daniels, the sole survivor, came in seventh.

Adding another caveat to the final was the absence of Blessing Okagbare of Nigeria. She was disqualified before the semifinals after testing positive for a growth hormone. 

Based on their recorded times alone, it's unlikely anyone, even Richardson, could have caught up with Thompson-Herah. She had something to prove: Fraser-Pryce's legacy as the fastest woman alive was solid, and Fraser-Pryce's toe injury in Rio meant that Thompson-Herah's win there came with an asterisk.

Thompson-Herah also recently came back from an Achilles injury that kept her from doing her best at the 2019 world championships. Despite that setback, she said she was confident heading to Tokyo, telling reporters: "I knew I had it in me but obviously I've had my ups and downs with injuries. I've been keeping faith all this time. It is amazing."

She kept her potential in this meet a mystery at first, running a 10.76 in the semifinals behind Fraser-Pryce's 10.73. In the final, her time beat Fraser-Pryce's personal record of 10.63 from June.

The result is no doubt a disappointment for Fraser-Pryce, who told the BBC (via The Guardian) that during the race, "I had a stumble and I never recovered from it." 

Much has been written about Fraser-Pryce being consistently overshadowed by Bolt, and in the absence of Richardson, this could have been an opportunity for Fraser-Pryce to finally get the attention she deserves as she reaches the tail end of her career at age 34. 

Sha’Carri Richardson @itskerrii

I’m sorry, I can’t be y’all Olympic Champ this year but I promise I’ll be your World Champ next year 🤞🏽⚡️.

But she has nothing to be ashamed of. Her world-championship and Olympic achievements mean she will go down in history as one of the greatest sprinters of all time. By winning her fourth Olympic medal in the 100 meters, she set a record for the most medals won in the event by a man or woman. 

As for the what-ifs, hopefully they will be put to rest in the biggest meet of next year, when the world championships will be held in Eugene, Oregon. Richardson will likely be back to make her first major statement on the world stage, and with Fraser-Pryce indicating earlier this year that that meet will be her final competition, it would make for a thrilling matchup. 

In this competition, the asterisks are there, for sure. But they don't overshadow the accomplishment for Thompson-Herah, and for Jamaica. When it comes to women's sprinting, that nation is still on top of the world.

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