Flash finish: Female Olympic sprinters speed to new records

American female sprinters Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad, as well as Jamaican Elaine Thompson-Herah are breaking records at the Tokyo Olympics, setting new standards for the sport, and leaving a legacy for other young runners to follow. 

Petr David Josek/AP
Sydney McLaughlin of the United States wins the women's 400-meter hurdles final with teammate Dalilah Muhammad close behind at the Tokyo Olympics, Aug. 4, 2021. Ms. McLaughlin describes their relationship as "iron sharpening iron."

The Tokyo Olympics over the past week saw a series of speedy days on the track from female sprinters Sydney McLaughlin, Dalilah Muhammad, and Elaine Thompson-Herah. The performances set new standards for what is possible in the sport of track and field.

In the 400-meter hurdles, Ms. McLaughlin broke the world record – and then her American teammate Dalilah Muhammad broke it, too. But only one of the world’s best hurdlers could win the Olympic gold medal – and Ms. McLaughlin came out ahead in the latest installment of the best rivalry in track.

The 21-year-old from New Jersey won the 400-meter hurdles title Wednesday, finishing in 51.46 seconds in yet another history-making day on the speedy Olympic oval.

“Iron sharpening iron,” Ms. McLaughlin called the latest in her series of showdowns with Ms. Muhammad, each one faster than the last. “Every time we step on the track, it’s always something fast.”

Ms. McLaughlin came from behind after the last hurdle to top the defending Olympic champion. Ms. Muhammad’s time of 51.58 also beat Ms. McLaughlin’s old record of 51.9, set at Olympic trials in June. But in this race, it was only good enough for the silver.

For Ms. McLaughlin, it was a muted celebration – in part, because traversing 400 meters while clearing 10 hurdles at 17 miles-per-hour is more exhausting than she makes it look.

She sat on the ground, gave a serious look toward the scoreboard – yep, it’s a record ... again – then got up and moved toward the hand-sanitizing station. Ms. Muhammad came over and gave her a congratulatory hug. They’ll meet again. World championships are next July.

“No mixed emotions,” Ms. Muhammad said. “Sure, there are always things you want to do better. But you use this as a springboard to the next. This is not my last race.”

Impressive as Ms. McLaughlin’s race was, this record didn’t really surprise anyone.

Ms. McLaughlin and Ms. Muhammad, a New York City native who went to Southern Cal, have been trading the record, and the wins, for two years. Ms. Muhammad first broke the mark at U.S. Nationals in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2019, then lowered it to 52.16, at the world championships in Qatar.

Ms. McLaughlin broke that record earlier this summer at the Olympic trials, running 51.9 to become the first woman to crack 52 seconds.

It felt inevitable that the mark would go down again on a fast track in perfect, hot-and-humid running conditions in Tokyo.

“I think it’s two athletes wanting to be their best,” Ms. McLaughlin said, “and knowing there’s another great girl who’s going to help you get there.”

Jamaican rockets

In the 100m, Ms. Thompson-Herah was also chasing down a record set over three decades prior by Florence Griffith Joyner also known as Flo Jo. Even with the record under her belt, she's still itching to go faster.

Streaking down the track, with only six steps to go until she reached the finish line, Ms. Thompson-Herah stuck out her left arm and started pointing at the clock.

She knew she had the win.

It was only a matter of what else would come with it.

With a time of 10.61 seconds, the latest in the long string of Jamaican speed stars defended her Olympic title in the 100 meters Saturday, she broke Flo Jo’s 33-year-old Olympic record. And, as a more-than-fitting bonus, she revisited a debate first triggered by the fastest Jamaican of all – Usain Bolt.

Yes, the gold medal and Flo Jo’s venerable record were great. But the question could not be avoided: Just as people wondered what Mr. Bolt might have given up when he hotdogged his way to the finish line in his first Olympic victory in 2008, how much faster might Ms. Thompson-Herah have gone had she run hard for 100 meters, not just 90 or 95?

“I think I could have gone faster if I wasn’t pointing and celebrating, really,” she said. “But to show you that there’s more in store. Hopefully, one day I can unleash that time.”

As it was, she finished the night as the second-fastest woman in history. Flo Jo’s world record of 10.49 is the only mark left to beat.

Ms. Thompson-Herah is now firmly entrenched in a long list of Jamaican women track stars – a string some say is even more impressive than the men’s. 

But getting on that list required defying expectations and a whole lot of faith in herself. Many expected two-time Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce to take gold. While Ms. Fraser-Pryce was at peak form, Ms. Thompson-Herah was something less, battling an Achilles injury that slowed her all the way through Jamaica’s national championships last month.

“Two months ago, probably a month and a half, I didn’t think I’d be here today,” Ms. Thompson-Herah said. “I held my composure. I believed in myself.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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