ATHLETICS Sport

Lamont Marcell Jacobs: From the hunter to the hunted

MONZA, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 11: Olympic 100m Champion, Lamont Marcell Jacobs of Italy sets to start a race on the grid before the Sprint ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 11, 2021 in Monza, Italy. (Photo by Dan Istitene - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

The fastest human being in the world — there is a magical ring to the words often used to anoint the men’s 100m champion at the Olympics. It’s a heavy honour to bear. Nobody has worn it as lightly as the great Usain Bolt did during his glittering career. With an unprecedented hat-trick of 100m-200m doubles at the Games, from 2008 to 2016, Bolt did things that had until then existed only in fantasy. A legend in his lifetime, it seemed his era would never end. But nobody, not even Bolt, can outrun Father Time, and so, in Tokyo last year, the world awaited a new king.

Lamont Marcell Jacobs was not the first name that came up in discussions among athletics fans who attempted to predict the identity of Bolt’s successor as the 100m champion. After all, the Texas-born Italian sprinter had never gone under 10 seconds until 2021. But after USA’s Trayvon Bromell, the favourite, exited in the semifinals, Jacobs surged to victory in a European record time of 9.80 seconds, announcing himself on the world’s biggest stage in some style. For good measure, the then 26-year-old added the 4x100m relay gold to his collection, silencing, at least temporarily, the critics who claimed that Jacobs was no more than a flash in the pan.

The world at large has not clapped eyes on the double Olympic champion since that golden week last August. He decided not to run until he was certain he would be at his best the next time he competed. “It’s not a simple decision,” he said in an interview on Rai 1 public television last year when he announced he would take a break until 2022. “I am the first to want to compete every week, but you get to a certain point in which you realise that it does not end here, in the sense that this is only a great starting point. Every time I race I want to raise the bar.” Jacobs also spoke of “the accumulated fatigue of the Olympics as well as a knee problem”.

The decision drew mixed reactions. Some fans were disappointed not to be able to see how the new Olympic champion would do against a hungry chasing pack. Others saw it as a sensible move to rest and reset. The great American champion Michael Johnson, who won three individual Olympic gold medals, offered another perspective, saying Jacobs was preserving his position. “His title is deserved but a bit tenuous due to no track record of consistent world-beating performances,” Johnson tweeted. “If he goes on the Diamond League circuit and gets beaten badly in his first races as Olympic champ it further diminishes his title. Risky when he can stay home and be celebrated.”

Jacobs’ long break is set to end on February 4 when he returns to competition in Berlin. Interestingly, he has decided to try out the 200m in some races this year. Is it a part of a strategic vision to mount a bid for the 100m-200m double at Paris 2024? “It’s one thing to run the 200 metres at a meeting, it’s another to do it at the Olympics also running the 100 metres and the relay,” he told Italian daily La Stampa in an interview, dialling down the hype.

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 01: Lamont Marcell Jacobs of Team Italy celebrates after winning the Men's 100m Final on day nine of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 01, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 01: Lamont Marcell Jacobs of Team Italy celebrates after winning the Men's 100m Final on day nine of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 01, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

 

Jacobs has been putting in the hard yards during his time away from competitive racing, working on his fitness, his sprinting technique and race tactics. Indeed, he said last month that his training had been going so well that “it scares me a bit to be in such top form in mid-December”. He will be watched closely when he returns — and not just because he is the reigning sprint king. His sudden improvement has been viewed with suspicion in some quarters. There were suggestions in the British and American media that Jacobs owed his late-career leap to doping, something the 27-year-old has furiously denied. He had worked with nutritionist Giacomo Spazzini, who was investigated for a connection with performance-enhancing substances, but said he “stopped working with him... from the very first moment we heard about this thing that happened”.

“The only positive athlete found recently was a Briton and the British are trying to find someone doping outside the UK because they're the ones with the problem at home. It’s something that makes me laugh. These controversies do not affect me,” Jacobs told Italian media outfit Il Messaggero . “I know that I got here by making many sacrifices. I have been through disappointments and defeats, but I always got back up and rolled my sleeves up. If I have reached this point, it is only thanks to hard work. They can write what they want.”

Jacobs’ coach Paolo Camossi, a former World indoor triple jump champion, said his ward’s improvement was a consequence of timing. “The postponement of the Olympics was a great stroke of luck for us,” he told South African publication New Frame . “We thought thank goodness, because in 2020 we wouldn’t have been ready technically and mentally.” Jacobs, Camossi said, had the potential to go under 10 seconds in 2019, “but lacked the ability to combine his qualities in the best possible way”. He was still competing in the long jump at that point in time and it wasn’t until he decided to focus solely on the sprint that things began to click into place.

In addition to detailed biomechanical work aimed at “raising” the frequency of Jacobs’ strides and optimising how he placed his foot on the track so it would “brake less”, Camossi said the pair also explored which tactical approach best suited the Italian’s style. From viewing the 100m in three parts — start, acceleration, final sprint — Jacobs started to see it as “a single long acceleration”. That is when the penny dropped. “Everything changed,” said Camossi. “And at this level, if you can improve something by 1% it makes an incredible difference.”

Jacobs also started to work with mental coach Nicoletta Romanazzi to deal with the inner turmoil that had been holding him back, connected with growing up without a father as a mixed-race boy in Italy. He was born in the United States to an Italian mother and a US serviceman father and brought up by his mother in northern Italy after his parents separated. In an online article written after winning the European indoor 60m title in Poland, Jacobs revealed that his upbringing generated insecurities. This changed during the pandemic. “I am who I am, including my mistakes and shortcomings, and being faced with the fragility of life woke something deep inside me,” he wrote.

Thanks to this realisation and his work with Romanazzi, Jacobs was a different person when he lined up in Poland last year. “I didn't feel hot or cold, pressure or rush, just the desire to run fast, to enjoy myself and achieve something great,” he wrote. It’s this shift that Camossi thinks will help Jacobs as he returns to the track and copes with the weight of expectations.

“Right now there’s nobody who can be compared to Bolt,” Camossi said. “Usain is Marcell’s idol. Marcell grew up watching all of Bolt’s races. He has them memorised. The nice thing, though, was that he won with a great time. It was the fastest winning time at the Olympics — besides Bolt’s victories. That’s notable. Before, he was someone who was just trying to upset the established hierarchy. Marcell is the man to beat now.”


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Printable version | Apr 25, 2022 12:08:23 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/from-the-hunter-to-the-hunted/article38305683.ece