On Saturday, a fleet of Jamaican sprinters swept the podium of the women’s 100-meter dash at the Tokyo Games. A sprinter from Cote d’Ivoire came in fourth. Two Swiss sprinters finished fifth and sixth. American sprinter Teahna Daniels came in a relatively distant seventh. I watched the broadcast of the entire thing, and was overcome with excitement. Look at all these nations that couldn’t be more different, all racing to see who is the fastest, I thought. Look at them go! The 100-meter dash is the best Olympic event.
On Sunday, having sobered up a little, I still felt the same way. The 100-meter dash is the event that the Olympics could least afford to lose. Here’s why.
If the Summer Olympics was literally just the 100 meter dash, it would still be must-watch television. Here is the thing: Every nation, no matter how troubled or impoverished, has at least one fast guy. The 100-meter dash is great because it takes each nation’s fast guy and pits them against all the other nation’s fast guys to determine which fast guy is the fastest guy. (I am using “guy” here as a catch-all term. You don’t need to be a guy to be a “guy.”) Truly, fast guys racing for 10 seconds or so at a time is the essence of international sport.
As with most Olympic sports, wealthy developed nations enjoy a training advantage in the 100-meter dash. But that advantage is not insurmountable. All that it really takes to be competitive in the 100-meter dash is to be lucky enough to have a really fast guy. If you assume that fastness is randomly distributed among the globe’s population, then it’s inevitable that, every now and then, the fastest guy from some random nation will be faster than the fastest guys from all the world’s superpowers.
The “random distribution of fastness” theory also goes a little ways toward explaining why Jamaica, a small island nation in the Caribbean with a population of 2.9 million—roughly the same population as Kansas—is so consistently dominant at the 100-meter dash. Yes, Jamaica’s success is largely due to the sprint-crazy culture there, which serves to channel the island’s best young athletes into sprinting as an end in itself, rather than sprinting as a tool to be deployed as a part of some other sport. But random chance has also gifted Jamaica with a couple dozen really, really fast guys. Random chance could have just as easily made it so that the dozen fastest guys in Wichita also happened to be the dozen fastest guys in the world. But the dice just haven’t rolled that way yet. Tough luck, Wichita!
The event is also egalitarian. Unlike swimming, where you need a pool in order to compete, or gymnastics, where you need leotards (or unitards) and a balance beam, you literally only need 100 meters of land in order to run the 100 meter dash. Sneakers can help you do it well, sure. But compare those things to other sports. Pools and leotards can be hard to come by, but it’s not hard to find 100 spare meters. Even the smallest nation on Earth is more than 100 meters long. And unlike every other higher-distance footracing event, you don’t even need a full track in order to race the 100-meter dash. The entire race takes place on a straightaway. Every nation, even the most curvy, has at least one straightaway.
The 100-meter dash is the best event in part because it is the most elemental Olympic event. Even the least perceptive person on the planet can immediately grasp the rules. If alien microbes from the planet Zircon were to land on Earth, they would be confused by everything except the 100-meter dash. There’s a starting line and a finish line, and the two lines are separated by exactly 100 meters, and you can see the finish line from the starting line. The participants dash from one line to the next. The person who dashes the fastest is the winner. The event is beautiful and simple. It is impossible to misunderstand.
It is also impossible not to relate to the 100-meter dash on a basic human level. The short-distance footrace is a foundational human activity, an easy way to find fun and exercise even in the most austere settings. Who hasn’t raced a friend to determine who was the fastest? Most of us who are blessed with the gift of ambulation have done this at least once or twice in our lives. Neanderthals probably raced each other for fun to see which Neanderthal was the fastest of them all.
Acknowledging that ambulation is a prerequisite, it’s also true that most of us reading this article could step outside right now, run a 100-meter dash as hard as we possibly can, and come away from it none the worse for wear. My long and unusually boozy pandemic has rendered me a flabby mush-pot who gets winded on the stairs, and yet even I could run a 100-meter dash, right now, if I wanted to. I couldn’t run a mile, and I probably couldn’t even run 400 meters. But I could run 100 meters right now, even if I spent the rest of the day depressed that it took me 75 seconds to do so.
While the marathon might compete for the title of the signature Olympic event, the marathon is ultimately too strange and scary to be truly relatable for most people. People have died racing the marathon. The very first person to run the marathon, the fabled Pheidippides, died after running the first marathon! The human body was not meant to run exactly 26.2 miles at a time. The human body was meant to run exactly 100 meters at a time.
OK, but what about the 800-meter dash? Fair point. Good point. Ultimately, not a convincing point. 800 meters hovers on the line between distance running and sprinting, and sort of splits the difference between those two disparate skill sets. There is strategy involved in the 800-meter dash, and, from where I’m sitting, that’s a bad thing. As a viewer, I don’t want a strategic race. I want an all-out fast race, which is what you get, every time, in the 100-meter dash. And, yes, while a 100-meter distance is long enough that a race across it can involve strategy—do you start fast and hope to leave your competitors in the dust, or do you pace yourself and turn on the jets within the last 30 meters or so?—it’s not so long that you have to be strategic in order to be great at it. Being really fast can be enough.
China, the United States, Russia, Great Britain, and the rest of the world’s economic superpowers can construct sport centers and throw millions of dollars into training athletes to dominate in pretty much every other Olympic event. But all of those training advantages don’t really seem to matter in the one event where the fastest guy generally wins, and if you don’t happen to have the fastest guy, then you generally don’t win. The final standings of Sunday’s men’s 100-meter dash underscore this point. While sprinters from the U.S. and Canada took silver and bronze, respectively, the gold medalist was an Italian guy, Lamont Marcell Jacobs, who shocked everybody by being this year’s fastest guy. He’s the first European man to win gold in the event since 1992. Isn’t that sort of great? All of the structural advantages enjoyed by the U.S. and Canada ultimately mean little if Italy just happens to have the fastest guy.
So you can have every other Olympic event, if you want them. You can have gymnastics. You can have 3-on-3 basketball. You can definitely have water polo. But leave me the 100-meter dash, I beg of you. It’s the event that requires the least of its participants, and, as a result, gets the closest to the Olympic ideal.