When the question came, shortly after Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce had eased through her 100m heat in a time so jaw-droppingly fast it would have won silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Jamaican world champion did not flinch. Do you think you can go 10.5sec in the 100m final? “Sure, definitely,” she replied. “It’s definitely a super-fast track.”
Such a time would put her within a hair’s breadth of Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 33-year-old world record. And yet, watching Fraser-Pryce run 10.84 while slowing down long before the finish, it seemed an entirely reasonable response.
Yet, more remarkably still, two athletes – Marie-Josée Ta Lou (10.78) and Elaine Thompson-Herah (10.82) – went even quicker. That was despite Ta Lou looking over her shoulder at one point and Thompson-Herah coasting for the last 30m.
That was not all. Six women crashed through the 11-second barrier. Another 22 set personal bests. Ten national records fell. Sprint heats are usually about loosening limbs and conserving energy. This was a sustained assault on the senses – and the record books.
Some suggested it may be down to the Mondo track in Tokyo, which is among the fastest in history. Others also pointed to the impact of the new spike technology. Whatever the reason, it made for a startling opening morning. More – much more – is likely to come in Saturday night’s 100m final.
Ta Lou said afterwards: “I’m in shock actually. I really didn’t expect to run that fast. I didn’t run it … but then 10.78sec. Wow.”
When asked whether it was a lightning fast track, Ta Lou nodded. “Yeah, I can say that because I ran 10.78, easy.”
The sentiment was shared by Britain’s Daryll Neita, who blasted to 10.96, her first time under 11 seconds. “It’s going to be a very fast championship, let’s put it that way, it feels amazing,” she said.
The good news for British supporters is that more is clearly lurking in the tank. “I don’t want to say it, but it felt like it could have been better,” she added. “Although I am obviously really grateful and really happy for that first round, executing and getting a PB.”
What of the great British hope Dina Asher-Smith? The 25-year-old is the third favourite with the bookies but she did not look entirely fluent in coming second behind Teahna Daniels in 11.07. But afterwards she insisted she was conserving her strength for the battles ahead.
“It felt good, it felt good to be out here and to finally get my Olympics under way,” she said. “I think the track was fast but to be honest today was just about making it through to the next round safely. And I do have another level – of course I do, it’s the Olympics.”
It is all shaping up to be a battle royale, with no less a luminary than Usain Bolt suggesting the 100m women’s final will eclipse the men’s race at these Games. On this evidence, it’s hard to disagree. And as Fraser-Pryce wryly commented afterwards: “It’s long overdue.”
Earlier on Friday the growing buzz about the young British middle distance talent was reflected as all three 800m women made the semi-finals. Jemma Reekie looked particularly impressive, dipping under two minutes in winning her heat in 1min 59.97sec, while Keely Hodgkinson negotiated a potentially tricky test to qualify second in 2:01.59, behind the American Raevyn Rogers. Alex Bell also squeezed through as a fastest loser.
“I’m through and that’s the main thing,” said Reekie. “It was a little bit messy and I was a little bit all over the place but that’s job done.”
The Scot, who has a genuine shot at a medal, also took time to praise the volunteers who clap the athletes – and the atmosphere inside the largely empty 68,000-seat stadium. “It’s quite good because the volunteers are making it feel special, they are clapping us coming out of the call room and they’re just so happy to have us here, it feels like there are people here watching,” she added.
However the US phenomenon Athing Mu, who turned 19 only last month, still looks the one to beat after winning her 800m heat in 2:01.10.
But there was less joy for Britain’s 3,000m steeplechaser Zak Seddon, who last week expressed his frustration about being confined to his room after coming into close contact with a Covid-infected passenger. Seddon, who finished 14th in his heat, said: “It’s not been great and mentally it’s been hard here, there, and everywhere. But rules are rules and if I want to show up here and run at the Games I have to abide by them.”