U.S. can’t crash Jamaicans’ party
The Olympic sprints are officially Jamaica’s world, and we’re all just spectators at a rollicking party.
Shelly-Ann Fraser, Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart ran off with an unprecedented sweep of the women’s 100-meter dash Sunday, an exhilarating victory that withstood American officials’ protest that the field should have been called back after Torri Edwards’ admitted false start.
It was the first time since 1976 that no American woman finished in the top three in the 100 at a fully attended Olympics. Marion Jones won gold in 2000, but her performance eventually was nullified after she confessed to doping before the Sydney Games.
While Fraser, Simpson and Stewart wrapped themselves in the green-and-gold flag of their homeland and celebrated the sixth sweep of a women’s event in Olympic history, the Americans wondered how Caribbean rhythms had become the soundtrack of the sprints at the Bird’s Nest stadium.
“It definitely hurt,” said Lauryn Williams, the Athens 100-meter silver medalist but fourth on Sunday, one spot ahead of Muna Lee and four ahead of Edwards.
“I think we take for granted the fact we’ve been on top of the game for I don’t know how many Olympics before. I know it was really hard for us that nobody got a medal.”
Fraser attributed her success to “reggae power.” It didn’t hurt that all three women were inspired by compatriot Usain Bolt’s world-record run 24 hours earlier.
“He definitely set the pace for us,” Stewart said.
Powering her way out of Lane 4, Fraser burst away from the pack about 35 meters down the track and sailed to the finish line in a personal-best time of 10.78 seconds. Simpson and Stewart were each timed at 10.98, and each got a silver medal.
“Wow,” said Jeanette Kwakye of Britain, who finished sixth and was the only European in the final. “Who’s better than Jamaica, mon. I need to go there, mon.”
Don’t we all. In spirit, if not in body.
Jamaican men and women had won silver and bronze in the 100 several times, but none reached the top of the Olympic podium. That ended when Bolt flew to a 9.69 on Saturday and Fraser led an impressive finish that had her grinning widely and revealing a mouthful of silver braces.
What’s even more impressive is that, like Bolt and unlike many elite Caribbean runners, Fraser has stayed home to train instead of going to an American college. And, like Bolt, Fraser is merely 21.
“It’s about time. We’ve been waiting on this,” Stewart said. “We’ve had so many great athletes come close.”
Fraser ended that frustration with a vibrant flourish.
“I’m excited. Oh my God, I can’t believe I actually won,” she said, giddy and giggly and utterly unaffected.
“Nobody expected me to win, so there was no pressure. All I had to do was execute. I was dreaming of it, honestly.”
Before the race, she was edgy and had to tell herself to calm down. A call home to Kingston to her mother, Maxine Simpson, helped soothe her.
“I’m not nervous anymore and not shy anymore,” she said.
Nor are she and her teammates unknown anymore.
Fraser, part of the 400-meter relay team that won a silver medal at last year’s world championships, opened some eyes this year when she finished second in the 100 at the Jamaican Olympic trials and bumped Athens bronze medalist Veronica Campbell-Brown off the team in that event.
Sherone Simpson, who turned 24 last week, had some of the world’s best times in the 100 and 200 in 2006 but was injured most of last season. Stewart, chosen the top female college track and field athlete for 2007 while at Auburn, has the world’s second-fastest time in the 200 this year, 21.99.
“They brought their ‘A’ game today. I can’t say anything negative about them,” Williams said. “I know they train hard and they’re all very nice girls. We need to go home and train harder, I guess.”
It didn’t help the Americans that Edwards, sure she had false-started, hesitated and awaited a second blast of the starter’s gun. When none came, it was too late for her to recover.
Edwards, who missed the Athens Games while serving a drug ban, finished last in 11.20 seconds. That’s well off the world-leading 10.78 she had run in June.
“I should have gone with the start. That was really a rookie mistake,” she said. “I knew in my mind, ‘OK, it was a false start.’ I got stuck out there; 11.2 is so mediocre it’s ridiculous.”
Lee, the U.S. Olympic trials champion, also hung back while anticipating a false-start call. She was timed in 11.07, just behind Williams’ 11.03.
“I really am shocked,” Lee said of the U.S. medal shutout. “I knew at least one of us would be in the mix.”
She wasn’t alone. Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie of the Bahamas, seventh in 11.19, expected Edwards or Lee to win medals.
“I honestly don’t know what happened,” Ferguson-McKenzie said.
“The fat lady has sung, and Jamaica it is.”
Helene Elliott can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.