Zaccardi: Women’s sprinting deserves its own spotlight

RIO DE JANEIRO – Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce bristled at the third question of the women’s 100m medalists press conference at 12:30 a.m. on Sunday.

Gold medalist Elaine Thompson and bronze medalist Fraser-Pryce, both Jamaicans, were asked if they felt less pressure given Usain Bolt receives more media attention.

“Well, this is the press conference for the women’s 100-meter finals, and Elaine just won and [American] Tori [Bowie] got the silver medal,” Fraser-Pryce said with force. “I think the spotlight is on us tonight.”

Thompson applauded the answer.

It was the most noteworthy moment of the 12-minute event attended by about a 20 journalists.

Thompson may have ushered in a new era at Olympic Stadium, but Jamaican women’s sprinting continues to be placed in the Bolt perspective.

What happened Saturday night deserves better.

Thompson won in 10.71 seconds, pulling away from Fraser-Pryce midway through the race. Bowie was second in 10.83, passing a slowing Fraser-Pryce in the final 10 meters.

Neither Thompson nor Bowie was a true sprint prospect until two years ago.

Fraser-Pryce hung on for bronze in 10.86 seconds, edging Ivorian Marie-Josee Ta Lou by .007. That ended Fraser-Pryce’s bid to become the first person to win three consecutive Olympic 100m titles.

For as great as Bolt has been, women’s sprinters began Jamaica’s surge and, with Thompson at age 24, look to continue it beyond Bolt’s planned 2017 retirement.

Merlene Ottey won nine Olympic medals between 1980 and 2000. Veronica Campbell-Brown captured 2004 and 2008 Olympic 200m titles.

And Fraser-Pryce had been the world’s best female sprinter over the previous seven years before this season, one she reportedly said she will end early due to a toe injury.

Surgery is “very possible” after the Olympics, Fraser-Pryce said, according to the Jamaica Gleaner, though she laughed off a question seeking confirmation and further details after the press conference. 

Thompson and Fraser-Pryce share a coach and a close friendship. They shared a Jamaican flag on the blue track after the final, posing for photos.

Thompson and Bowie have much in common, too.

They are both 24-year-olds from small country towns raised primarily by grandmothers with only a recent history of success.

In 2013, Thompson ranked No. 124 in the world in the 100m. She believes that kind of nondescript background sets her apart from the previous Jamaican champions.

“I’m kind of different because I wasn’t like a star in high school,” said Thompson, a former high-school troublemaker who hails from Banana Ground, in Manchester Parish, 50 miles west of Kingston. “Looking at these guys competing, they motivate me because I want to be like them.”

Thompson’s best finish at Jamaica’s famed high school championships, “Champs,” was fourth. Injured in 2012, she took her 100m personal best from 11.41 to 11.17 in 2014 and then to 10.84 last year.

By the 2015 World Championships, she was seen as the future of Jamaican women’s sprinting. Five years younger than Fraser-Pryce, Thompson took silver in the worlds 200m.

Then she matched Fraser-Pryce’s national record for the 100m, 10.70, in dusting her mentor at the Jamaican Olympic Trials last month.

Thompson said she didn’t envision herself to be an Olympic 100m champion until earlier this year. By 9:20 p.m. Saturday, she was the favorite after running the easiest semifinal.

“I’ve been doing a lot better this year,” she said. “This year I realized.”

In 2014, Bowie finished last at the world indoor championships. In the long jump.

It was then that she called her agent, Kim Holland, and finally took the advice of Holland (and others before) to switch to sprinting.

“OK miss Kim, where do you want me to go?” said Bowie, who is from Sand Hill, Miss., a town of no stoplights, and has a thick accent.

Holland suggested central Florida and coach Lance Brauman.

Bowie experienced almost immediate success. She beat Allyson Felix and Fraser-Pryce in the May 2014 Prefontaine Classic. Out of lane one. In the second 200m of her career.

She won the 2015 World Championships 100m bronze medal and nearly swept all six of her rounds at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., last month. The only hiccup was in the 100m final, where she was third (but a comfortable third, earning the last individual Olympic 100m spot by .17).

Holland spent Saturday texting Bowie prayers and reassuring her that even though she had only been sprinting two years, if she trusted the work she put in, it would pay off.

“It’s a little overwhelming,” Bowie said afterward, “first time being here and then you win a silver medal.”

Relief and tears were evident as Bowie stopped in the media mixed zone and saw Holland.

“We got ourselves a medal, miss Kim, are you happy?” she beamed.

Thompson and Bowie are each medal favorites in the 200m, which starts Monday.

Bolt will race in the 100m semifinals and, very likely, the final both on Sunday night. Chances are, he will not be asked about Thompson in his press conference. Decidedly not in the first three questions.

“Usain is Usain, and he always has the spotlight because of what he has accomplished, so we can never take that away from him,” Fraser-Pryce said. “But tonight is our night.”