A changing of the guard in women’s sprints doesn’t mean a redrawing of the map.
That 100-metre Olympic gold medal is heading back to Jamaica, only this time in the hands of Elaine Thompson, the 24-year-old who took down America’s best, to say nothing of her training partner, two-time defending champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.
Thompson turned what was supposed to be one of the most competitive races on the Olympic program into a runaway. Running even at the halfway mark with Fraser-Pryce and Tori Bowie of the United States, Thompson pulled away over the last half and defeated Bowie with a bookshelf-sized slice of daylight in between.
Thompson finished in 10.71 seconds, a full .12 seconds better than Bowie and only .01 off the time she ran to beat Fraser-Pryce at Jamaica’s national championships last month. Thompson’s 10.70 in Kingston was the best of five sub-10.8 women’s sprints this year and served notice that things could be changing once the sprinters reached Rio.
“Jamaica has so many talented sprinters,” Thompson said. “To be the second champion, I’m really happy.”
Three of those sub-10.8 women were in the final - Bowie and another American, English Gardner, were the others - as was Fraser-Pryce, the 29-year-old who was a brace-faced newcomer when she won her first of two golds at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing eight years ago.
The evening’s best drama came earlier in the men’s 10,000 meters, where Britain’s Mo Farah defended his title, rallying after he tripped and fell with 15 laps to go.
Day 2 closed with Jessica Ennis-Hill coming up 35 points short of defending her title in the heptathlon.
In between, long jumper Jeff Henderson brought all-time gold medal No. 999 to the United States, jumping 8.38 meters to overtake Luvo Manyonga of South Africa on his last jump.
Fraser-Pryce was trying to become the first person to win three straight 100-meter titles at the Olympics. It would’ve given her one day’s worth of bragging rights over Usain Bolt, who has overshadowed her in almost everything despite their dual dominance. Bolt will try to do it on his own in the men’s race Sunday.
Fraser-Pryce led the women’s final early, but faded, and settles for a bronze medal - won by only .007 over surprise finalist Marie-Josee Ta Lou of Ivory Coast - to go with the green-and-yellow, Jamaican-flag hairdo she worked up for her turn as her country’s flagbearer at the opening ceremony. She had been struggling with a toe injury that she said made even getting to the line an accomplishment.
“By far, I would say this is my best championship ever,” Fraser-Pryce said. “I knew how hard I worked, I knew the pain, I knew the sacrifice, I knew the tears, I knew everything.”
And now, there’s a new champion from the island country that seems to grow them on trees.
Thompson was a late bloomer. Until she finished second in the 200 last year at world championships, she barely made a splash on the international scene, tucked behind Fraser-Pryce and the country’s seven-time Olympic medalist, Veronica Campbell-Brown, among others.
Thompson’s win over Fraser-Pryce at nationals caused a stir, but then both runners took to the sideline - Fraser-Pryce with the toe injury and Thompson with a strained hamstring.
She looked no worse for wear over three heats in Rio de Janeiro. In the final, she got stronger as she approached the line and left what had been billed as an uber-competitive field far behind.
Dafne Schippers, the Dutch heptathlete-turned-sprinter, finished fifth, and Gardner, the champion at U.S. Olympic Trials last month, was two more spots back.
“They are not unbeatable,” Gardner insisted, when asked about the Jamaicans’ unending dominance in these races.
When the lights are brightest, though, they really are.