By GARY LEMKE in Tokyo
Four-hundredths of a second, how quick is that? Literally the blink of an eye? And that’s what separated Akani Simbine from winning a medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The South African, given the seemingly jinxed Olympic lane two in a men’s 100m final, raced through the line in 9.93 seconds, slower than his semi-final 9.90, but faster than everyone except Lamont Jacobs, Fred Kerley and Andre De Grasse.
This isn’t the time for an inquest. Simbine ran his heart out and he now has a fifth and a fourth in the men’s Olympic 100m final. That’s not a bad thing to tell his children one day.
The tension had ratcheted up Zharnel Hughes made a big false start in lane four and was DQ’d. Now there were seven athletes in the hunt for three medals.
Simbine actually flew out the blocks, reacting to the gun at the second time of asking in 0.141. Only Kerley (0.128) was away quicker. However, by the 30m mark Simbine was already on the heels of those in front of him and at this level, an Olympic final there is no coming back from that.
He ran on strongly, straining every sinew but it wasn’t to be. He dipped at the line to stop the clock at 9.93, taking fourth behind surprise gold medallist Jacobs of Italy, with the American Kerley winning silver in 9.84 and Canada’s De Grasse claiming bronze in 9.89.
You couldn’t quite hear a pin drop as the sprinters crouched across the track in their blocks, but watching from near trackside you could hear the dull hum of the air conditioners doing their work on another muggy Tokyo evening.
With these being the “quiet” Games, Covid-19 regulations meaning there were no paying spectators, this 100m final was far removed from previous. We can still “see” the great Usain Bolt playing to the crowd and cameras at the start. He was the ultimate showman and the big occasions always helped him take his performances to stratospheric levels.
All his fastest times came at the big competitions. His world record 9.58 was set at the 2009 World Championships, his 9.63 at London 2020 and his 9.69 at the Beijing 2008 Games. How fast would he have gone without a crowd?
That lack of crowd scenario also suggested that the gold medallist at Tokyo 2020 would be one of the slowest time recorded in several Games’. Which brought Simbine into the picture based on his African record 9.84 set in Hungary last month.
Simbine had qualified for the final by finishing fourth in 9.90, which was by some distance the fastest of the three semi-finals. He did so with a tailwind of +0.9, which turned out to be a lucky charm for him. Because, the other two semis had slight headwinds, which made for slower races.
China’s Bingtian Su won the semi in an Asian record 9.83, sending form studiers diving into their books. Where had he come from? Ronnie Baker of the US clocked 9.83 and Italy’s Lamont Jacobs third in 9.84.
Simbine had therefore reached the final as a “fastest loser” but in all sport one needs the gods to smile on you. Just look at the Springboks lost to the All Blacks at the 2019 Rugby World Cup and then took what most neutrals regard as the easier path to the final.
And the rest is hysteria.
History was also against Simbine. He was given lane two for the final, racing alone with no one on his inside. No athlete since 1956, at least, had won a medal from that lane in the men’s 100m final.
All of which just adds to the layers of the story that will be about Simbine in years to come.
South Africa’s other two men’s 100m semi-finals, Gift Leotlela and Shaun Maswanganyi, fell at the semi-final stage – in Leotlela’s case quite literally.
He crossed the line fourth in his semi-final in 10.03 and then clutched his hamstring and crashed to the track. Hopefully the injury is not serious because Team SA needs him for 4x100m relay duty.
Maswanganyi finished sixth in his heat in 10.10, which ended his campaign in this event.
Photo: Anton Geyser