Now for the fun, before the heavier stuff: Look down at the blocks and see their nails.
For those wanting to extend the lightning-quick showcase of stunning speed into something with even more color and marvel, you could do worse than taking a gander at the extra-long manicures, fluffy false eyelashes and rainbow-colored braids among the women sprinters at the Olympics. The flame-haired Sha’Carri Richardson may have been missing from the 100-meter event, but her fellow runners have never been lacking when it comes to flash.
“I always say the 100 meters — the hurdles, especially the sprints — are catwalks. Actually, from 100 to 400 is a catwalk, honestly,” said Asha Philip, a British sprinter who ran the women’s 100-meter semifinal Saturday and will run the 4x100 relay next week. “This is the time we get to shine, the camera’s on us, and you know, we run ugly, so you at least want to somehow look pretty on the side. Look good, feel good, run good.”
Manicured talons on the fingers and wigs, braids and weaves on the head are normal styles for many Black women — and Black women make up a majority of Olympic sprinters — especially for those too busy to care for their natural hair during competition, vacation or even a long work trip.
And in track and field in particular, American icon Florence Griffith-Joyner helped set a high bar of personal style among runners when she was setting world records in the 1980s.
Flo-Jo was known for her loud outfits, the most famous of which was a neon purple, one-legged spandex bodysuit that Serena Williams emulated in January at the Australian Open, and nails so long they curved inward. Her get-ups preceded another spirited American great, Gail Devers, a three-time gold medalist and four-time world champion across the 100 and the 100 hurdles.
Devers had a meaningful reason for growing her nails to preposterous lengths. The runner was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune condition, in 1990, and her feet swelled and developed blisters so painful she couldn’t walk before she ultimately recovered in 1991.
Having struggled with chronic health problems years before her diagnosis, she would grow her nails so that she knew when her body was healthy.
“When I first met my coach, Bobby [Kersee], you know, he coached me, he coached Florence,” said Devers, who devotes time to spreading awareness about Graves’ disease, during a video interview. “I was 17. He saw me and was like, ‘Oh no, not another one with these nails.’ … He said, ‘As long as they don’t get in the way.’ I said: ‘They won’t. They’re me. They’re part of me.’
“For me, that was what fueled me to do what I did — from wondering if I would ever walk again, crawling in my house, to crossing the finish line, taking a victory lap.”
Today’s sprinters get questions about their looks the same way Devers did, especially inquires about whether long braids or weaves slow them down during a run. (Apparently not.)
“This? No, this look is sleek, light,” Jamaica’s Natoya Goule, a medal contender in the 800 meters, said of her long cornrows that end in a braided ponytail she has dyed green and yellow for her country’s colors.
German 100-meter sprinter Tatjana Pinto searched for weeks for the perfect shade of purple-colored hair to braid into her own simply because purple is her favorite color and it makes her feel good.
“It was pretty difficult, but I found it, and I’m pretty happy about it,” Pinto said. “I’m feeling satisfied and comfortable. I mean, hair is so important for women. I think it’s everything to get the right hair done. It’s cool to stay at the start line feeling comfortable — it’s the best way to go, actually.”
First-time U.S. Olympian Javianne Oliver feels the same, which is why she scrolled Instagram and Pinterest before heading to Tokyo for inspiration for her manicure, which features a different-colored design on each different nail.
There is a nail salon available to athletes in the Olympic Village, but most sprinters visited their own nail technicians before traveling. Oliver described it as part of her preparation for the Games.
“Honestly, it’s a part of getting down the blocks,” Oliver said. “Just looking down at your nails or doing the absolute most makes me feel like I should do the absolute most on the track.”
For her manicure, Philip paid a visit to her nail technician of many years to get something special before leaving: an opaque, whitish base with different pastel colors painted diagonally across the very tips and accented with a metallic stripe. She shares the instinct to go bold with many other female athletes at these Games, including U.S. gymnastics gold medalist Sunisa Lee, who performed the uneven bars with long, lacquered nails.
But among the sprinters, the in-your-face expression of personal taste seems somehow louder and more common.
“I thought let me give it a little sumin’ sumin’ for the Olympics,” Philip said. “Like I said, it’s all about the catwalk. Like, gymnastics, they get to show off themselves, a female sport like boxing, they’re all sweaty and stuff — I mean, we want to glisten. That’s how I say it. When I tell you I haven’t got no makeup on, because it’s been so stressful and it’s been so hot — I said, ‘Forget it!’ But as long as my eyelashes stick on and something else looks good … it even goes down to underwear. I make sure I’ve got nice underwear on when I run to make me feel better. It’s everything. No stone unturned. We go all out.”
Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.