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South Africa’s Akani Simbine misses out on 100m medal after Italy’s Lamont Jacobs stuns the world

Lamont Jacobs of Italy (left) and Akani Simbine of South Africa during the Men's 100m final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on 1 August 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / CIRO FUSCO)

South Africa’s Akani Simbine improved from fifth place in the men’s Olympic 100m final in Rio 2016 to fourth in Tokyo 2020, but this time it hurt even more.

Four-hundredths of a second, how quick is that? Literally the blink of an eye. And that’s what separated Akani Simbine from 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. 

Jacobs became the first new men’s 100m champion since Athens in 2004, running a personal best of 9.80 to win Italy’s first ever gold medal in the blue riband event. Jamaica’s Usain Bolt took gold in 2008, 2012 and 2016.

“It sucks. For me, I just wanted to be on the podium. It’s been five years of just missing out and now it’s another year, and another year to miss out on a podium,” a dejected Simbine said after the race. 

“It’s going to drive me even more, to train even harder and next year be a faster and a better athlete. I still believe in two more Olympics, that’s my goal. I’m not going to stop after this because I’m disappointed. I’m going to go on; I believe I can win a gold medal, it’ll happen.” 

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.

Tense start

The tension had ratcheted up as Britain’s Zharnel Hughes made a big false start in lane four and was disqualified. Now there were seven athletes in the hunt for three medals. 

Simbine 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 in an Olympic final there was 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 US’s Kerley winning silver in 9.84 and Canada’s De Grasse claiming bronze in 9.89. 

“It wasn’t too crazy, it’s a bit of the norm. Anything can happen in a final and the best man won,” Simbine told reporters on Sunday. “Everyone was a challenge when you step into the final and when you’re competing for the gold medal and [Jacobs] just had his best run, he ran a European record and that’s his best run.” 

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 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 ones. We can still “see” the great 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 finish with one of the slowest times recorded in several Games. Which brought Simbine into the picture based on his African record 9.84 set in Hungary last month.

Quicker in semifinal

Simbine had qualified for the final by finishing fourth in 9.90, which was by some distance the fastest of the three semifinals. He did so with a tailwind of +0.9, which turned out to be a lucky charm for him. 

The other two semis had slight headwinds, which made for slower races. 

China’s Su Bingtian 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 Jacobs finished 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. 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.

“It [the lane] wasn’t too difficult; I had to run my own race. At the end of the day, I can only control my race,” Simbine said. “I did the best I could in that situation. I’m a bit disappointed, but I still have that fire in me to get on that podium.” 

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 hopes, Gift Leotlela and Shaun Maswanganyi, fell at the semifinal stage – in Leotlela’s case quite literally. 

He crossed the line fourth in his semifinal 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. DM 

Gary Lemke is in Tokyo as chief writer for Team SA.

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