Publish date:

Elaine Thompson-Herah Blazes Into Olympic History

Despite a headwind, a pandemic and an empty Olympic Stadium, the 29-year-old Jamaican triumphed in the 100 meters in record-breaking time.

Sign up for our free daily Olympics newsletter: Very Olympic Today. You'll catch up on the top stories, smaller events, things you may have missed while you were sleeping and links to the best writing from SI’s reporters on the ground in Tokyo.

TOKYO — As the fastest woman in Olympic history crossed the finish line, she pointed at the scoreboard, her mouth opened like a drawbridge and she spread both arms a mile, er, kilometer, wide. At that moment, on the track in an empty stadium but in front of an international audience witnessing 10.61 seconds without precedent, the celebration had begun.

Elaine Thompson-Herah of Jamaica looked like all she wanted in the world was to find someone to hug. This marked bad timing, which followed a great time. With no one available, she started screaming, and because there were no fans beyond her coaches and the volunteers here, her elation echoed all the way up into the rafters—and probably down the block. She then fell backward, onto the track, arms and legs extended, as if she wanted to make a snow angel in 90-degree temps.

Her chief rival and countrywomen, two-time gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, just stood there, her face cloaked in astonishment. Not because Thompson-Herah won, but because of how she triumphed, with the second-fastest time in the history of the race, despite a headwind, a pandemic and the only energy in National Stadium on Saturday coming from how fast her legs churned.

Elaine Thompson stunned after breaking the Olympic record to win gold in the women's 100 meters

In victory, Thompson-Herah joined Fraser-Pryce in the two-100-meter-gold-medals club, defending her title from 2016. The Jamaicans now comprise half the members and helped sweep the event, with Shericka Jackson snagging the bronze in her first major championship final at that distance.

That was not the shocking part, nor the special one. The shocking part was the actual times. Thompson-Herah out-sprinted one of the most accomplished speedsters in the history of their sport by .13 seconds and defeated the bronze medalist by .15. The special part was the Olympic mark, set by the late Florence Griffith Joyner in 1988, in South Korea. Thompson-Herah edged that time of 10.62 by one one-hundredth of a second, or roughly the time it takes a hummingbird to furiously flap its wings seven times.

Afterward, basking in the afterglow, Thompson-Herah said something unexpected. Not: I’m amazing. Not: Nobody can run like me. She said, simply, “I was nervous.”

The person most likely to share that feeling was waking up across the world. Al Joyner had seen the time but not the race, and because of that and the time difference, he didn’t realize the final had concluded until a reporter told him. But he did not share in Thompson-Herah’s nerves. He asked if her time was legal. Told it was that—and into a headwind—and he gasped. “Oh, wow, that means the record’s broken,” he continued. “That’s amazing. That’s in the books.”

Joyner said he had actually pegged Thompson-Herah as the favorite, citing her improved technique that he witnessed in person earlier this year. She appeared more relaxed, and she moved forward differently—to his trained eye—in a significant way, by “touching the ground instead of touching down off the ground.”

As he talked, it sounded like Joyner had been transported back to Seoul, to the race his wife won and the record she registered that stood for 33 years. He says that Florence had dreamed of seizing gold all her life, back to childhood, and that when she knew, as she neared her own finish line, she stuck her arms out.

“Why did you do that?” he asked afterward.

SI Recommends

“Because I realized I was about to win,” she said.

If this wasn’t the most anticipated 100-meter final since, it certainly ranked up there. Even the times from Friday’s qualifying heats spoke to a wealth of talent and a track many of the sprinters here described as “fast.” The day before the final, three blazed times that would have won a medal four years ago in Rio, staking a claim to the once open post-Usain Bolt marquee event in track and field.

There wasn’t the usual buzz, but it didn’t matter, not with that deep of a field. They were the buzz. Who cared about the stands? Volunteers, the lucky ones, clustered together, unable to look away. The frontrunners advanced in their semifinals, setting up the match-up most desired. Thompson-Herah stretched out in Lane 4. Fraser-Pryce bounced in Lane 5. They were even right next to each other, which seemed appropriate. But they would not be for long.

The gun sounded at 10:55 p.m. in Tokyo, but not before an introduction that looked more like a rave. The stadium went dark, as the 100 meters the fastest women in the world would sprint across was brightened. As each competitor waved for their introduction, their faces, via holograms, lit up roughly 15-meter sections of the tracks. Their names were also displayed by lighting, along with their national flags. Spotlights danced and a helicopter hovered overhead, giving the whole scene a feel like the movie The Fugitive.

Then the race started. Thompson-Herah sprung from the blocks just as Joyner would describe her form later. She looked relaxed and her feet hardly touched the track, acting more like springs. Fraser-Pryce, owner of the world’s fastest time (10.63) this year before Saturday, made a push about halfway through. As if sensing what had happened, Thompson-Herah turbo-charged, seeking another gear—and finding one. She pulled away. She triumphed. And she launched into that epic solo celebration. Anyone who doesn’t see the replay on NBC in the coming days … isn’t watching NBC.

womens-100-meters-olympics-lead

Afterward, Fraser-Pryce did not rule out another Olympics. She did not directly answer questions about Paris in 2024. But when asked to describe her signature moment from four Games, she said she hadn’t created it yet, which would indicate she’s not done. On Saturday, she did not match Bolt’s trio of Olympic golds, the mark she had been seeking. But she did become the first person with four Olympic medals in the 100 meters. “It’s definitely a legacy for Jamaica,” she said, meaning herself and her compatriots.

The three Jamaican medalists laughed at questions about the track’s condition. They didn’t want it to seem like the new Olympic mark resulted from anything other than technique, willpower and horsepower, or pure speed. They didn’t think it had.

Joyner didn’t care. The new record did not bother him; in fact, he had expected it to fall, if not at these Olympics, then at the next world championships. This group of sprinters is too fast, too seasoned, and they have long been closing in.

Nor does he believe the world record, also set by Florence, will last forever. That’s the thing with records. They rarely do. Florence ran a 10.49 in Indianapolis, two months before she registered the Olympic mark in South Korea. They used to keep it on a table in their house, her husband said, before she died in 1998 after an epileptic seizure.

Everyone knew her as Flo-Jo by then, the fastest woman in the world. Joyner knew her as more than that. More than her records, too. Certainly more than her times. He said that Florence would be happy for Thompson-Herah and happy for the Jamaicans. They were also her most fierce rivals, along with her fellow Americans. They pushed her to be faster. She would understand how hard they had pushed each other to do the same.

He said he might find the medal on Saturday in the States and tell his wife, the one that he still misses, about her record, the one that is now broken.

More Olympics Coverage: