RIO DE JANEIRO — Even for a sprinter, a sub-set of runners renowned for being some of the most high-strung, smack-talking, rawhide-tough athletes in the world, Elaine Thompson has a reputation for being especially headstrong. Stories abound of how petulance almost ended her career in her native Jamaica before it started.
Still, she did come to Rio with the fastest time in the world this year. But now her most urgent problem as she tore down the track in Saturday’s 100-meter final was her veteran countrywoman Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce running to her far right, determinedly chasing the sort of history even Usain Bolt hasn’t captured just yet. And Tori Bowie, the American running right beside her, who has the speed to run her down as well.
Yet as they strained the last couple meters to the finish line, the growing daylight between Thompson and Bowie was emblematic of how much Olympic sprinting has changed.
Jamaica is once again the home of the Fastest Woman in the World, extending America’s drought in this Olympic event it once owned to 20 years, and counting.
This time it was Thompson, a comparative newcomer to the event, who reasserted Jamaica’s place atop the sprinting world as she powered to victory in 10.71 seconds, finishing a good two feet ahead of Bowie (10.83) and the highly respected Fraser-Pryce (10.86), who ran a season-best but missed becoming the first sprinter ever to win the gold medal in three consecutive Olympics, a distinction Bolt will try to complete on the same track Sunday night.
“It was my time in 2008, and it’s Elaine’s time now,” Fraser-Pryce said.
Thompson had a lot to learn about being a world-class pro too. She’s a late-blooming talent who didn’t even run her senior year of high school because she was kicked off the team for disciplinary reasons. The victory continued an upward career arc that she credits to a tough-love talk from renowned Jamaican club coach, Stephen Francis, last year. Francis did most of the talking. Thompson did most of the listening. Francis, whose brother Paul coached Thompson as a collegian, told her she had talent, but it wasn’t enough. She had to get serious about the sport. And she finally listened.
“She is still saucy but getting there,” Paul later told the Jamaican press. “Sometimes she is misunderstood because she has a very sharp tongue.”
“That talk changed my life,” Thompson admitted Saturday night.
The other thing that helped Thompson was training day after day with Fraser-Pryce, an accomplished woman who is as professional and serious-minded as Thompson was raw and petulant.
A lot of people have tried to explain how Jamaica is able to reliably kick out great sprinters. The tiny island nation has just 2.8 million people; it only seems like 2.799 million of them are sprinters. In recent years, thanks to a tradition first established by the likes of Merlene Ottey and continued by Bolt and Fraser-Pryce, Jamaica has dominated the world-best time lists and medal podiums through four Olympics.
Some people credit the country’s grassroots love of the sport, and point to examples like the 30,000 or so people that jam in each year to watch the eagerly-awaited Champs, the island’s high school championships. Others say that seeing so many of their Jamaican countrymen and women excel in sprinting makes up-and-coming kids believe they can star, too. A frequent saying in Jamaica now is it’s the only nation in the world where track is the national sport.
Thompson was one such kid. She was only 16 when Fraser-Pryce starting minting her legend with her first gold in the 100 at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
She watched as Fraser-Pryce went on to match Bolt’s feat of winning gold medals in the 100, 200 and 4×100 relay at the 2012 London Games. She’s seen how since then, in addition to staying at the top of her sprinting game, the 29-year-old Fraser-Pryce somehow finished a degree in child and adolescent development and she’s going to start work toward a Master’s Degree next month. She runs a hair salon, which will be believable to anyone who saw the gradient yellow-to-green hairstyle she was rocking Saturday night. (There should be a warning label on her bib: Do not try this at home.)
She’s also so deeply respected the entire Jamaican Olympic team voted to have her carry the flag last weekend in Rio’s Opening Ceremony.
If not for the painful left toe injury that hampered Fraser-Pryce all year, she almost certainly would’ve given Thompson an even sterner test in the final. Even Thompson suggested that afterward. Asked some weeks ago to describe the pain, Fraser-Pryce called it an 8 on a scale of 10. The foot still hurts her so much she burst into tears right after winning her semifinal heat earlier Saturday night.
“I cried because [the pain] was unbearable,” Fraser-Pryce said. “But I knew I had just one race to go tonight. And I just wanted the chance to defend my championships. I hate talking about pain, hate talking about my toe, I hate all of that because it’s part of athletics. And I would never want to take someone’s shine. But to be able to stand on the podium with Elaine is a wonderful feeling.”
The bronze medal was Fraser-Pryce’s lowest 100-meter finish in three Olympics. Yet again and again she said, “I’m happy” because all she’d been through.
“I’m really happy for her. I’m happy Jamaica gets the gold medal. I’m happy we get to keep the gold medal.” Fraser-Pryce explained.
Thompson could keep it that way for awhile.