Within the space of nine manic minutes, Tokyo became 2021’s latest Azzurri outpost on a momentous and historic night for Italy.
There were scenes of indescribable joy when Gianmarco Tamberi shared gold with Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim after each jumped 2.37 metres in the men’s high jump.
Social media was abuzz when the two agreed not to go ahead with a jump off, instead embracing in a warm hug before letting the moment overcome them. Tamberi, draped in an Italian flag, sunk to the track in sheer ecstasy.
From the position of the press tribune, the scenes were just as joyous as the Italian contingent roared their approval.
It proved a mere prelude for a sensational denouement on a hot, stuffy night at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium – a men’s 100m final no one would have predicted prior in the heats.
The fastest man in the world this year, Trayvon Bromell, did not even make the final, narrowly missing out in his semi-final via a photo finish and not clocking a quick enough time to qualify as a fastest loser.
Italy’s Lamont Marcell Jacobs booked his spot in European record-breaking fashion thanks to a run of 9.84 seconds. A sensation was brewing.
Even so, that was still only enough for the third quickest time in a third semi-finals of the highest quality – China’s Su Bingtian storming home to set the pace at 9.83, finishing ahead of pre-final favourite Ronnie Baker after a photo review.
For Jacobs to even medal still seemed a long shot, especially considering Italy had never before had a 100m finalist. Simply, there just seemed more obvious candidates to take gold in the Olympics’ blue-riband event.
And yet, it is now Azzurri-riband. Jacobs made a flying start and never looked back to clock a new best time of 9.80, with Baker’s compatriot Fred Kerley and Andre De Grasse – who takes bronze for the second straight Games – left in his wake.
Tamberi rushed straight over to his countryman in scenes that will have been met with wild celebrations back in Italy, this unexpected gold rush keeping the party going after Roberto Mancini’s football team secured glory at Euro 2020.
What made those wild nine minutes even harder to fathom is the fact Italy had not won an athletics medal at an Olympics since 2008. The last time they won two at the same games was in Athens four years prior to that.
As special as this night was for Italy, its meaning stretches far beyond the ebullient Mediterranean nation. This was the start of the post Usain Bolt-era in the 100m at the Olympics. There is no doubt athletics misses its 21st century superstar and the men’s race paled in terms of quality compared to the talent-stacked women’s cast the night before.
Moreover, these remain the Games that most never wanted. Tokyo 2020 has undoubtedly suffered at times from the lack of crowds and golden moments played out with a distinct lack of atmosphere.
But this was a true reminder of what makes the Olympics so special, what makes billions of people tune in every four years [in non-pandemic times] to watch sports they may not have heard of before. The scenes of unbridled joy, the underdog stories, the sheer emotion of seeing someone’s life work result in the greatest possible reward. They are human moments of cinematic grandeur and beauty.
Even before the bellissimo finale, there had been a timely reminder of why we’re here at all. Yulimar Rojas, the two-time reigning world champion and silver medallist at Rio 2016, broke the world record with an astonishing leap of 15.67m in the women’s triple jump. It was Venezuela’s first gold medal since London 2012 and a first ever in athletics.
The arguments will rumble on beyond next weekend’s closing ceremony over whether these Games should have taken place during a deadly pandemic. On Sunday, Rojas, Tamberi and Jacobs offered a pretty good argument as to why they did.