Emergence of Jamaican sprinter Kishane Thompson injects real drama into men’s Olympic 100 metres

Score one more for team Start Slow, Finish Fast.

If you’re keeping track of Olympic trials results — and any real track nerd should be — note that Noah Lyles, Sha’Carri Richardson, Shericka Jackson, Andre De Grasse and Kishane Thompson all trailed early in their respective 100-metre finals. And each of them finished first, often against Diamond League-level competition.

So if you think Thompson, who ran a world-leading 9.77 seconds on Saturday to win Olympic trials in Jamaica, needs to squeeze more out of his first 30 metres, take another look at him obliterating a world class field over the final 70. A late 1980s vintage Ben Johnson could put elite fields in a chokehold by 15m and rocket to victory from there. For just about every other top-tier elite before or since, winning means hitting top speed at the right time, and limiting deceleration from there.

Thompson’s eye-opening run at Jamaican trials is the latest case in point, and we’re focusing on him because he’s the least-known of this weekend’s 100m champions — and his victory might be the most impressive.

Watch him achieve maximum velocity about two-thirds of the way down the track as he overtakes Oblique Seville, then turn his head a few degrees to the left, keeping both Seville and the infield clock in his line of sight. Simply put, Thompson conducted a 9.77-second sprint clinic, from acceleration to top-end speed, to the low-key showmanship of his late race side-eye.

Last week, if you had asked me whether a sprinter could make a sub 9.8-second run look effortless, I’d have said no. Thompson just proved me wrong.

“My coach instructed me to just run the first 60, nothing more,” the 22-year-old Thompson told reporters after the race. “After that, I should just shut it down.”

Here we should note the difference between Thompson shutting it down and a civilian doing the same. For normal people, it’s like easing off the throttle on an old AMC Pacer — you go from slow to slower in an instant. Thompson’s more like a top fuel dragster. Back off the gas at 300 mph and you still have more than enough speed to carry you across the finish line. So whether or not he ran hard those final 40 metres, he certainly ran fast. 

If you don’t believe me, look at the clock. Thompson did. It told him he’s a superstar.

WATCH: Athletics North breaks down the men’s 100m at Canadian trials:

Breaking down the 100m at the Canadian Olympic trials | Athletics North

Andre De Grasse & Audrey Leduc were crowned fastest man and woman in Canada at the 2024 Olympic & Paralympic trials last week, but what do their wins mean as Paris 2024 comes into focus? We talk to certified track nerd Morgan Campbell about the results and the breadth of the Canadian athletics team.

Either way, Thompson just forced us all to imagine how much faster he can run. In an Olympic year, in the men’s 100 metres, it’s a massive question.

As far as the business of track and field is concerned, Noah Lyles is the World’s Fastest Man, and the heir to Usain Bolt’s throne as the sport’s megastar. He’s a central figure in Sprint, the new Netflix documentary series that explores elite-level track and field, and he’s a main character in NBC’s pre-Olympic ad campaign. 

He and the broadcaster complement each other. NBC can always use a homegrown superstar in a marquee event; Lyles, last year’s 100m world champion, qualifies on both fronts. The network loves to give attention to select standout athletes, and Lyles, as we have seen, loves to receive it. If American broadcast execs had to script an outcome, it would almost certainly involve Lyles repatriating a 100m Olympic title that last belonged to an American in 2004, when Justin Gatlin won gold.

Thompson turning heads

Thompson’s sudden emergence, then, is an unforeseen plot twist.

And a welcome one.

If a Noah Lyles coronation is good for business, unpredictable, high-level competition for that crown is even better for the sport.

Thompson, of course, isn’t the only sprinter headed to Paris with a sub-9.8 clocking on his résumé, so why should we take him more seriously than we do Ferdinand Omanyala, whose 9.79 topped the world list until Thompson erupted in Kingston last week?

That other sprinters have personal bests in the same neighbourhood is the point. Between Fred Kerley (9.76), Lamont Jacobs (9.80), and Seville (9.82), we already have a potential traffic jam at the podium, before we even get to Letsile Tebogo and Zharnel Hughes, who both medalled in Budapest last summer. Whether we think the defending champion is Lyles, who won the most recent global title, or Jacobs, the gold medallist from Tokyo in 2021, Thompson has emerged as the top contender.

If he ran 9.77 in a one-off race, against an overmatched field, you could consider him a long shot. But he ran blazing fast times over rounds, against guys fast enough to punish him for any misstep. We don’t know if Thompson will repeat that performance in Paris, but we know that he can. 

For his part, Lyles played nonchalant when a reporter relayed the news that Thompson had opened Jamaican trials by running 9.82.

“All right. Nice,” Lyles said, as he sipped from a water bottle. “Let’s hope he stays healthy.”

Of course, it’s possible that Lyles really wasn’t bothered.

The 26-year-old sprint star is a lot of things — YouTube personality, podcaster, Time Magazine cover subject. But before all that, he’s a veteran professional with a rock-solid self belief, and a track record at running fast times at the right moment. Last month in Jamaica he ran 9.85 seconds to finish second to Seville at the Racers Grand Prix, and last week in Oregon he ran 9.83 to win U.S. trials. Those numbers, combined with his breakthrough indoor season, suggest that Lyles is ready to shatter a plateau. If Olympic gold requires running sub 9.8, a healthy Lyles should be ready to do it in Paris.

Still the 0.06 seconds between Thompson and Lyles is a massive gap for elite sprinters. It’s the same interval that separates De Grasse from a national record in the 100 metres. As Canada’s Fastest Man showed us earlier this year, finding ways to shave that much time off your personal best is a full time job.

And if Thompson was honest about cruising through the final 40 metres of his win at Olympic trials, we still don’t know how much faster he can run, which means none of his rivals know how much they need to improve to keep pace. It’s a heck of a mind game to have to play with a month remaining until the Olympic final. One more variable that makes the podium difficult to predict this far out, and one more big question to confound the script writers.

Thompson’s emergence reminds us that competition is more thrilling than cinema, and that between now and Paris, if everyone stays healthy, only one thing is guaranteed.


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