RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) The new Olympic champion caught her country’s flag from out of the stands, unfurled it and fumbled a bit as she tried to drape it over her shoulders.
She knew exactly where to turn for help.
Jamaica’s newest sprint champion is Elaine Thompson, and she was more than happy to let Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce place that green-and-yellow Jamaican flag over her shoulders after denying her friend and training partner a record third straight title in the 100 meters on Saturday.
“When I crossed the line and glanced around to see I was clear, I didn’t quite know how to celebrate,” Thompson said after she routed the field in 10.71 seconds, with Fraser-Pryce taking bronze.
The nation that produced the once-in-a-lifetime sprinter in Usain Bolt has more of a production line going on the women’s side. Thompson joins the likes of Merlene Ottey, Veronica Campbell-Brown and, of course, Fraser-Pryce in the island country’s long line of sprinting luminaries.
At 24, more than five years younger than the woman she unseated, Thompson showed a changing of the guard doesn’t have to mean a redrawing of the map.
“Jamaica has so many talented sprinters,” Thompson said. “To be the second champion (at 100 meters), I’m really happy.”
What was billed as one of the most competitive finals in the history of the event turned into something of a non-race. Thompson made it that way.
Running about level halfway through the 100 meters, she pulled away from American Tori Bowie for a .12-second victory – a gap big enough to scoot a bookcase between her and the American.
Thompson’s 10.71 was only .01 off the time she ran at Jamaica’s national championships last month. That 10.70 in Kingston was the best of five sub-10.8 women’s sprints this year and served notice that things could be very fast when the sprinters reached Rio de Janeiro.
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 former champion who was a brace-faced newcomer when she won her first of two golds at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing eight years ago.
“I’m just happy that Jamaica gets to keep the gold medal,” Fraser-Pryce said.
While Thompson romped, 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 another British athlete, Jessica Ennis-Hill, coming up 35 points short of defending her title in the heptathlon, an event won by Belgium’s Nafissatou Thiam.
In between, long jumper Jeff Henderson brought all-time Olympic gold medal No. 999 to the United States, jumping 8.38 meters to overtake Luvo Manyonga of South Africa on his last jump.
Later, the spotlight turned to Fraser-Pryce, the 5-footer nicknamed “Pocket Rocket,” who 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 Bolt, the oversized sprinter with the outsized personality who has overshadowed her in almost everything despite their dual dominance. Bolt will try to get to three straight all by himself in the men’s race Sunday.
Fraser-Pryce had a piece of the lead early, but faded, and ended up with a bronze medal to go with the green-and-yellow hairdo she worked up for her turn as her country’s flagbearer at the opening ceremony. She held off surprise finalist Marie-Josee Ta Lou of Ivory Coast by a mere. 007 seconds for third.
Anything but a disappointment, according to the two-time champ, who’s been dealing with a toe injury most of the year. She said running the final about 1 + hours after the semifinal was too much for one night.
“By far, I would say this is my best championship ever,” she said. “I knew how hard I worked, I knew the pain, I knew the sacrifice, I knew the tears, I knew everything.”
She knows Thompson well, too. They both train with coach Stephen Francis out of the MVP Track and Field Club, which has played a big role in helping Jamaica expand its dominance in track over the years.
Thompson was a late bloomer. Her picture isn’t even on the front of the MVP website. Until she finished second in the 200 last year at the world championships, she barely made a splash on the international scene, tucked behind Fraser-Pryce and Campbell-Brown, among others.
Thompson will also have a chance in the 200 meters in Rio, giving her an opportunity to win medals in both events the way Fraser-Pryce did four years ago in London.
“I look up to Shelly-Ann so much,” Thompson said. “She had a rough season. It’s amazing to be with her.”
Thompson was dealing with an injury of her own – a strained hamstring that forced her to bail out of the Jamaican nationals.
She was clearly healed once she got to Brazil. 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 the U.S. Olympic Trials last month, was two more spots back with a time of 10.94.
“They are not unbeatable,” Gardner insisted, when asked about the Jamaicans’ persistent dominance in these races.
When the lights are brightest, though, they really are.