Female sprinters take the spotlight at Tokyo’s ‘superfast’ track

Women compete in a 100m qualifying round on the first day of Athletics competition at the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics in Tokyo on July 30, 2021. (Alexandra Garcia/The New York Times)
For years, the 100-metre dash was synonymous with one stupendously fast human: Usain Bolt, who won three straight Olympic titles before he retired in 2017. He has since occupied his time with dabbling in professional soccer, selling cars, traveling the world as a bon vivant and becoming a new father.

There was a time, not so long ago, when his void at the Tokyo Games was expected to be filled by a bunch of other stupendously fast humans — in the women’s 100 metres.

They seemed primed for the spotlight, for a bit of attention from the public that Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica, one of the race’s top contenders, said was “long overdue.”

But now, after another drug-related suspension, the final Saturday night is shaping up to be just as notable for the athletes who are missing.

Blessing Okagbare of Nigeria, the seventh-fastest woman in the world this year, was provisionally suspended Saturday morning by the Athletics Integrity Unit for testing positive for human growth hormone, knocking her out of the Games. Okagbare, the 2012 Olympic silver medallist in the long jump, had won her opening round heat Friday.

The news of Okagbare’s exit — between rounds and mid-competition — was a stunning development. The field was already absent Sha’Carri Richardson, who is serving a monthlong suspension for testing positive for marijuana, a banned substance, after she dominated the women’s 100 metres at the US trials.

Richardson had been expected to be a gold medal contender and cement herself as one of the next great American sprinters. She was replaced by Jenna Prandini, the fourth-place finisher at the trials.

On Friday, after successfully advancing to the semifinals Saturday, Prandini said she was not feeling any additional pressure.

“I’m just out here trying to do my best,” she said, “and that’s all I can do.”

Prandini recalled being at practice when she was informed that a spot had opened up in the 100. She had already secured a spot on the US team in the 200 metres.

“To be honest, I had no idea who I was replacing,” she said. “I just got a call, and they asked me if I’d run the 100, and I said yes, and that was it. I didn’t know the rest of the story. So, as soon as you guys found out, that’s when I found out, as well.”

After finishing with the third-fastest qualifying time in Tokyo, Fraser-Pryce did not discuss Richardson or her suspension. She could be forgiven for wanting the focus to remain on the sprinters who are at the Olympics, even if doing so was becoming a losing battle.

For much of Fraser-Pryce’s career, she — and most sprinters, male and female — were overshadowed by Bolt.

Now, at 34, Fraser-Pryce is a two-time Olympic champion, a six-time Olympic medallist, a nine-time world champion and the mother of a young son, Zyon. She famously went into labour while watching a broadcast of the women’s 100-metre final at the 2017 world championships. She took about a year off after giving birth, a sabbatical that “kind of rejuvenated my motivation and what I wanted to achieve,” she said.

Fraser-Pryce returned to win another world championship in 2019, then ran the fastest time of her life in June: 10.63 at a meet in Jamaica. That performance made her the second-fastest female sprinter in history behind Florence Griffith-Joyner, whose world record has stood for 33 years.

On Friday, Fraser-Pryce did not dismiss the idea that she could set another personal best if the conditions were right and the race lived up to its potential.

She was among the athletes who described the Olympic Stadium track as fast (“superfast” was her exact word). In her heat on Friday alone, two women — Ajla Del Ponte of Switzerland and Gina Bass of Gambia — broke national records.

“Honestly, I try not to put any pressure on myself,” Fraser-Bass said. “I’m sure coming into this championship, I may be seen as a favourite. There are different narratives that are out there. So I’m trying not to focus on the expectations. I just want to make sure I put myself in position to do my best.”

Easier said than done: Merely making their way to the starting line proved too much of a challenge for at least two of Fraser-Pryce’s rivals before the final on Saturday. But it could still be one of the premier showdowns of the Tokyo Games.

Elaine Thompson-Herah, another Jamaican, helped prevent Fraser-Pryce from an Olympic three-peat by winning gold in Rio de Janeiro. Marie-Josee Ta Lou of the Ivory Coast had the fastest time in qualifying. Dina Asher-Smith of Britain edged Fraser-Pryce and Ta Lou at a Diamond League meet in May.

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