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Elaine Thompson-Herah surpasses an Olympic legend in a 100-meter blaze of green and gold

Elaine Thompson-Herah of Jamaica celebrates as she crosses the finish line to win gold in the women's 100-meter final. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

TOKYO — As she approached the finish line Saturday and it was clear to Elaine Thompson-Herah that she would win her second consecutive gold medal in the women’s 100 meters, the Jamaican sprinter glanced toward the infield and pointed to a camera. She started to scream because adrenaline had overtaken her body. When she finally crossed the line, the massive video board above her at an empty National Stadium flashed her time with a stunning punctuation: 10.61, Olympic record.

Thompson-Herah collapsed on her back and nearly started to cry on the red track, both because she had just run the second-fastest time in the event’s history — she broke the 33-year-old Olympic record of Florence Griffith Joyner, who still owns the world record at 10.49 — and because of the crucible she endured to do it.

“This 10.6, it takes a lot,” she said. “I think I celebrated early, too much.”

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She was competing against the deepest, fastest field in the event’s history after dealing with a lingering Achilles’ injury this year — and she was doing it into a Tokyo head wind Saturday night. After being asked all week about the absence of Sha’Carri Richardson, the American sensation who was ruled out of the Games after she tested positive for marijuana, Thompson-Herah shrugged aside that distraction to join Griffith Joyner, widely considered the best sprinter ever, in the record books. She did so by holding off two countrywomen: Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who won silver in 10.74, and Shericka Jackson, who took bronze in 10.76 to give Jamaica a medal sweep.

The only thing Thompson-Herah questioned after her historic performance is what might have had happened had she not celebrated early, had she instead run full-bore through the line. That she pulled up made her Olympic record all the more remarkable, but could she have challenged Griffith Joyner’s world record had she not done so?

“Most definitely, if I wasn’t celebrating,” she said, before being asked whether she regretted doing it.

“No, no, no,” she said. “Patience. Time.”

In time, the 29-year-old Thompson-Herah surely could join the conversation as one of the best sprinters in her sport’s history. On Saturday night, she and her teammates cemented a new dynasty in sprinting’s post-Usain Bolt era. Only Bolt has won three gold medals in the 100 meters. Fraser-Pryce was trying to join him — she won gold in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012 before taking bronze behind Thompson-Herah in Rio de Janeiro — and it looked as if she just might do so after a clean start and an early lead.

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But Thompson-Herah found another gear and left her and Jackson behind, as well as Marie-Josee Ta Lou, the Ivory Coast sprinter who finished fourth for the second consecutive Olympics. She was crying as she left the track as the Jamaican sprinters celebrated in front of a small delegation in a corner of the stadium.

Bolt’s departure left a vacuum for track and field at the Olympics. Thompson-Herah, who would equal Bolt’s accomplishment if she wins the 100 meters in Paris in 2024, helped fill it Saturday night.

“The legacy we have in Jamaica is incredible,” said Fraser-Pryce, who had a stumble on her third step before she recovered for silver. She expected her country to be reveling in the sweep. “I’m hoping they’re not defying the curfew . . . but I’m sure it’s going to be remarkable. To be able to have three of our ladies standing on the podium, like we had in 2008 — I’m hoping they’re celebrating.”

Fraser-Pryce had dealt with a lingering toe injury before the 2016 Games, watching Thompson-Herah, her training partner, solidify herself in international races and then win gold in Rio. Fraser-Pryce settled for bronze, and the following year she announced she was pregnant. After she gave birth to her son by emergency Caesarean section, it seemed as if her career could be over.

But Fraser-Pryce quickly returned to training — and has said that motherhood gave her new perspective on her career. She continued to chase Thompson-Herah and other sprinting stalwarts, including Dina Asher-Smith and Ta Lou, and she finally broke through in 2019 when she won her fourth world title with a time of 10.71, at 32. Thompson-Herah reclaimed the mantle Saturday, even though six weeks ago she didn’t know whether she would be able to compete because of the Achilles’ injury.

“You could see the results at the [Jamaica] trials. I came in third in both events. I wasn’t healthy. I was there just to qualify,” Thompson-Herah said.

She looked at full strength for Saturday’s final, which perhaps served as the marquee event of the entire track and field competition on just the second night of the meet.

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There were glimpses of just how good the group of sprinters could be on the first night of qualifying heats, which saw seven runners hit their personal bests — Thompson-Herah, Fraser-Pryce and Ta Lou produced the fifth-, sixth- and seventh-fastest times of the year. There were decorated veterans and up-and-comers who had produced brilliant seasons dotting the start lists. They included 24-year-old American Teahna Daniels, who finished seventh, and the 25-year-old Asher-Smith, who didn’t advance from the semifinals and pulled out of the 200 meters with a hamstring injury.

“They are a different level. I’m a track fan,” said British sprinter Asha Philip, who did not qualify after fading in the semifinals. “The girls are setting the standard for the competition ahead. I knew this is going to be a fire, fire 100-meter [finals]. Forget the boys, honestly.”

Philip said she was going to find a good seat to view the final, and when it finally arrived, the nearly empty stadium went fully silent. A helicopter buzzed overhead. Thompson-Herah heard the gun go off and found herself flanked by her teammates before she pulled away. Only one woman had ever run faster.

“I have never run this fast. It hasn’t really soaked in yet,” she said, before pondering whether she can get the world record next.

“Anything is possible,” she said.

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