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It has been 33 years since Florence Griffith-Joyner set the current world record in the women’s 100 metres. A generation later, one of the greatest fields of female sprinters ever assembled has a shot at taking it down.
The women’s 100 metres is shaping up to be the race of the Tokyo Olympics, featuring two defending gold medallists and some of the fastest times ever run since FloJo’s blistering 10.49 performance in 1988.
In first-round heats on Friday, sprinters set or equalled three national records, one African record and two personal bests.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the 2008 and 2012 champion and the 2016 bronze medallist, is favourite after running 10.63 at a race in her native Jamaica in June, the second-fastest time in history.
Asked in Tokyo if she could better that, she said: “Definitely.”
The reason for the scintillating times, several of the sprinters said, was the fierce competition.
“Everyone just rises to the occasion,” said US athlete Jenna Prandini. “If somebody’s running fast, everyone else wants to be competitive and get to that level, too. I think it’s just a joint effort in all of us being competitive with one another.”
Fraser-Pryce said there were too many talented women in the field to single out one top challenger: “There’s rivalry with everybody.”
After three Olympics where the eyes of the world were on her compatriot Usain Bolt, she is excited for women to be in the spotlight. “For female sprinting it’s long overdue. I hope it definitely lives up to the expectation.”
Bolt has said he is more excited about the women’s 100 metres in Tokyo than the men’s, telling the Guardian earlier this month that “the women’s finals will be without a doubt more interesting”.
But there was a hint of tension in the national stadium in Tokyo on Friday when some of the top sprinters were asked about the absence of Sha’Carri Richardson. The American, who ran 10.72 this year to make her a strong contender for the gold, is not competing in Tokyo after testing positive for marijuana.
“I’m not here to talk about Sha’Carri. I don’t know how that’s going to help us right now,” said Blessing Okagbare of Nigeria.
Fraser-Pryce and defending champion Elaine Thompson-Herah said “no comment” and abruptly walked away from reporters.
Côte d’Ivoire’s Marie-Josee Ta Lou, who led the first round with an African record 10.78, said she was “in shock” at the fast times being run in Tokyo on the first day of competition.
“I really didn’t expect to run as fast as I just did. I have never run here. I didn’t even train in the warm-up area. So it’s my first time and I was like, ‘wow!’”
There may be some technical variables contributing to this year’s speed. The introduction of carbon-fibre track spikes since the last Olympic Games has been widely credited with helping runners reach faster times in distances from the 100 metres to the marathon.
Tokyo’s hot and humid weather is also favoured by sprinters, who say it prevents muscles from stiffening and allows for more fluid running dynamics. “It’s good to execute in the heat because there’s less pressure,” Fraser-Pryce said.
Fraser-Pryce also credits her performance with taking a year off to give birth to a son between the Rio Olympics and Tokyo to “rejuvenate my motivation”.
Is the strongest line-up since FloJo adding to the pressure? “Are you kidding me?” said Teahna Daniels, the top American qualifier for Saturday’s final. “This is the most anticipated race, and just to be in it, just to be competing, I’m soaking in every moment.”