Who is the fastest man in the world?
All we knew going into the men's 100-meter final Sunday was that it wasn't Usain Bolt. In the wake of the three-time 100-meter dash winner's 2017 retirement, this Tokyo final was the chance to see who was going to fill the Olympic void and become the next king of men's sprinting.
Turns out, it's not that simple. In fact, without Bolt, the 100-meter field is kind of a mess—in a good way. In Bolt's absence, and with clear medal favorites dropping off before the finals, the podium was up for grabs. It made for a surprising finish in the form of Marcell Jacobs of Italy crossing the line first as a mix of countries came onto the radar as contenders.
First off, Jacobs' gold is a shock, to say the least. Before this final, Jacobs was an unknown even among many track aficionados. He barely has a Wikipedia page. Much of his success has come from the long jump, and at the 2019 world championships in Doha, he didn't make the 100-meter final at all.
He wasn't even on the radar at these Olympics until the finals, after running 9.94 seconds in his heat Saturday and coming in third in his semifinal earlier Sunday.
As it turns out, he was saving his best effort for last, as he led the finals almost the entire way for a decisive victory in 9.80, making history for Italy. Jacobs is the first Italian to make it to the Olympic final in this event, let alone to walk away with the title.
And the fact that it came just minutes after Italy's first gold in track and field since 2008—from high-jumper Gianmarco Tamberi—is icing on the cake for the country.
Jacobs didn't seem to believe it himself.
"I've won an Olympic gold after Bolt; it's unbelievable," he said, per Reuters. "Tonight, staring at the ceiling, perhaps I will realize."
Jacobs, born in El Paso, Texas, to an Italian mother and American father, grew up in Italy and celebrated with Tamberi.
"Watching Gianmarco was a massive boost. It is fantastic," he said, per the Guardian. "My objective was to arrive in the final, maximum concentration and run my line. It is fantastic for Italy. I think there is a big party like for the football."
Jacobs' win wasn't the only podium surprise here, as Fred Kerley of the U.S. managed to edge out Canada's Andre de Grasse for the silver. (DeGrasse repeated his 2016 Rio medal with a bronze, in the only non-shocking result from this final.) While Kerley has had a good year, and someone from the U.S. was expected to medal, he wasn't at the top of the list: Kerley has only been a pro runner for a few years and is known more for his work as a 400-meter sprinter.
Still, he was able to prolong the U.S. record of medaling at every Olympics since 1996. While it may not be obvious to an American public that has been inundated with Bolt media for the past three Olympics, the U.S. men have historically been dominant in this event, winning nearly half of all available medals since the 1896 games and taking 16 of the 29 titles thus far. The U.S. was on a winning streak, albeit a short one, in the Olympics before Bolt's appearance, winning in 2000 and 2004. And U.S. runners won the 100 at the past two world championships.
Knowing the team's potential, a silver still comes as somewhat of a disappointment for the U.S. Trayvon Bromell came into these Olympics the undeniable favorite. He was undefeated this season and still holds the top time for the event this season with a 9.77 (with a 1.5 tailwind).
But sadly, he wasn't able to peak at just the right time this year and underperformed in the semifinals. Yet another American favorite, 2019 world champion Christian Coleman, didn't even compete to make the team in Tokyo because of violating doping protocols.
Still, the fact that Kerley and Ronnie Baker (fifth place) did so well is demonstrative of how deep the U.S. field is, and the future is very bright for U.S. men's sprinting.
Usain Bolt's country, Jamaica, meanwhile, didn't even have the opportunity to make a four-peat happen, as Yohan Blake, the sprinter who has been widely billed as a successor to Bolt, didn't make the final.
No Jamaicans reached the final, and in their absence—and without Bromell or Coleman for the U.S.—other countries got their shot at the spotlight, including China's Su Bingtian, who was a huge surprise in the semifinal with a 9.83 (with a healthy 0.9 tailwind). He is only the second Asian man to compete in a final and the first since 1932.
Now in his third Olympics, he vastly improved on his previous performances, when he finished eighth in his semifinal in London in 2008 and fourth in his semifinal in Rio. Meanwhile, Akani Simbine, who is on a quest to become the first African to win the event and the first South African to medal since 1908, got a little bit closer than his fifth-place finish in Rio, finishing fourth.
They were all able to take advantage of a reset in the men's 100-meter field. Without Usain Bolt, nothing was clear coming into this final. But sometimes, it comes down to whoever is able to use that chaos as a ladder. Sunday, that person was Marcell Jacobs.