The last time Andre De Grasse ran a 200-metre Olympic semi-final, he ended with a giant grin, all smiles as Usain Bolt crossed the line with a fraction of a second lead.
Five years later, De Grasse looked across again. This time, there was no one. He slowed for his best finish in the event, a time of 19.73 seconds that marked the fastest a Canadian has run the 200-m, a race De Grasse intends to win when the final is held Wednesday.
He will not be the sole Canadian contender for that crown, nor was he the only Canadian to win a semi-final Tuesday. With a time of 19.99, four-thousands from his personal best, Aaron Brown will also race in the final (8:55 am. ET Wednesday).
Not since 1928 have two Canadians qualified for a 200-m Olympic final. Ninety-three years ago, John Fitzpatrick placed fifth behind Percy Williams, who took gold.
De Grasse wants the same.
“I’m just going to go here and try to win a gold,” De Grasse said.
With Bolt retired, De Grasse knows the 200-m is his to take. He stepped into the blocks for the semi-final Tuesday all business, with little of the jocularity that made him a global darling in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. His coaches wanted a first-place finish, to secure him a favourable outside lane for the final. But with American Kenneth Bednarek out in front for much in the race, De Grasse pushed for more speed.
“I didn’t expect to go that fast. I wanted to save it for the final,” De Grasse said.
Brown set himself a different goal. “I just wanted to qualify and survive,” he said. Five years ago, he left Rio in “a blaze of humiliation” after a seventh-place semi-final finish. Not so in Tokyo, where he was first in a photo finish so close it took officials several minutes to sort out the first three places. “Feeling pretty easy, like I have more left in the tank,” he said. “It bodes really well and I feel proud of myself.”
The two Canadian sprinters are friends, rivals – and suite mates in the Olympic village. De Grasse is “right beside me,” Brown said. “So I’m going to talk to him, be like, ‘What was that? Smashing the national record on the semi? What are you doing?’”
“But he looks great. And I’m just looking forward to a really great battle.”
“We just want to make history and make Canada proud,” added Brown, now competing in this third Olympics. The two men have just more than 24 hours before they race again – time, Brown said, to eat, hydrate, get a massage and watch Netflix. “I don’t want to overthink it and overstress,” he said. “The more you think about it and obsess over it, the more you get mentally fatigued.”
For De Grasse, the 200-m final is a chance to make good on destiny.
His boisterous semi-final finish with Bolt in 2016 did not merely provide one of the enduring images of the Rio Olympics. It also made De Grasse look to all the world like a man marked as next in line in the post-Bolt era.
He has already posted a personal-best time this week in the 100 metres, when he ran 9.89 seconds for bronze.
But De Grasse has never managed to vanquish a slow start, and it’s hard to win the 100-m crown when you trail off the blocks. It is in the 200-m that his distance-devouring top speed triumphs over his leaden start. And sprinters revel in the Tokyo heat that has made archers faint and tennis players beg for mercy.
“The weather is good. It’s hot outside. The conditions are good,” De Grasse said.
De Grasses’ two fastest runs in Tokyo have come in the outermost lane, and part of his ambition in running a fast semi-final was to ensure he could run in a similar position for the final.
“I don’t like running the inside lanes. It’s a little bit tight for me. As you can see from the morning time, it’s a struggle,” he said, referring to his heat earlier in the day. De Grasse ran a 20.56 race from Lane 2 in the morning heat, the 16th-fastest time.
Hours later, he returned for the semi-final and beat his own record from Lane 9.
“I guess it’s kind of easier when nobody is there and you’re just looking straight ahead,” he said.
The Tokyo 200-m schedule, with two races in a single day, was so unusual that it affected De Grasse’s Olympic preparation.
“I didn’t probably get to work as much on my speed in the 100, because I was so focused on the two – and trying to make sure I was fit enough,” he said.
But, he said, “I’m feeling pretty good. This is my stronger event.”
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