For the five years Andre De Grasse has been a household name, it’s been as Canada’s best second-best.
He was the guy who was sort of in the same league as Usain Bolt, and almost as good as Donovan Bailey.
When you do something that everyone can do – run quickly – but do it better than all but a handful people, that’s still really something.
But Mr. De Grasse had never won a major international meet in the colours of his country. He was Mr. Any Day Now.
On Wednesday night, his day arrived. Mr. De Grasse freight-trained his way through a stacked field of Americans in the men’s 200-metre sprint. His famously late kick came on so late and so strong, you could almost hear the “Woo woo” as he came up the middle for the win.
His gold-medal run in 19.62 seconds was a direct link back to Atlanta, 1996 and the last time this country owned the track.
Every winner in Tokyo is having trouble figuring out what to do with themselves once they’ve hit the jackpot. With no audience to play off and no family to point up at, many are reduced to wandering aimlessly around the track while volunteers in baby blue try to wrangle them. Mr. De Grasse tried the combinator – running around, lying down, dancing a little jig, running around some more.
Since he was the day’s last act, staff eventually had to chase him away so they could start cleaning up.
Then he did interviews with every broadcaster on site. No one does that.
Mr. De Grasse was so generous with his time that the flag he’d had over his shoulders and the shoes he’d worn made it to the mixed zone before he did. People passed these holy relics around and took pictures.
When Mr. De Grasse finally arrived, an hour later, there was practically no one left in the Olympic Stadium. He was barefoot and talked out.
He was in one of those overloud dazes common to people who’ve just given themselves a shock. He didn’t really know what to say.
At first, it was a blizzard of clichés about believing in yourself.
But when he name-checked his family he got himself choked up. Tears became sobs. Through them, Mr. De Grasse repeated, “I’m just so proud of myself.”
He got the car back on the road and then hit another obstacle. Someone mentioned the coach who discovered him as a kid running in basketball sneakers. More tears, even harder, gulping sobs.
“I can’t think about that right now,” Mr. De Grasse said, practically begging. “I don’t want to think about that right now.”
But the sudden emotional release had softened him up. Mr. De Grasse forgot to maintain his genial, ‘it’s all good no matter how it turns out’ stage persona.
Part of Mr. De Grasse’s appeal is the way he took second best in stride. Big smile, happy to talk, proud to be there. Even when things were going terribly for him, Mr. De Grasse was a reliably sunny presence.
When Mr. Bolt treated him like his li’l buddy back in Rio, Mr. De Grasse ate it up and so did Canada. Everybody likes a guy who’s comfortable in his space.
Now the stress of that necessary charade, one all second-best athletes must maintain, could be released.
“I finally did it,” Mr. De Grasse said, in the midst of a rambling thank you to that coach, Tony Sharpe. “I finally did it, yeah.”
Listening back to the tape, you can hear him panting and whimpering.
“It’s my first time being emotional on the track,” Mr. De Grasse said. “I always came up short, winning bronze and silvers. It’s just to have that gold medal, have that gold medal. No one can take that away from me.”
It was at this point – when he began reflexively repeating things he was saying – that you realized Mr. De Grasse wasn’t actually speaking to anyone. Instead, his interior monologue had become exterior.
The few people remaining were listening to Mr. De Grasse have a conversation with himself. I guess this is what happens when you are peppered with the same question 20 times in 60 minutes – you have an out-of-body experience.
It didn’t last long. Once he’d regained his composure, Mr. De Grasse shifted to the technical aspects of his Tokyo 200. He reminded everyone he’d pulled up short in the semi and still set a personal best.
“If I kept going I probably could have run a nineteen-five,” Mr. De Grasse sniffled, back in control.
The person had been re-submerged, and the professional resurfaced.
We are not owed any part of the athletes we watch. That’s been a theme in Japan. Their job is being good at what they do, not providing the rest of us with televisual catharsis.
But at the Olympics, there is something more remarkable than watching athletes go fast or jump high. It’s watching a person have a profound, life-defining experience in real time, while cameras roll.
We’re all familiar with how that’s supposed to look and sound. So there is a sameness to most of them.
But in Tokyo, nothing has been the same, and the reactions aren’t either. Had Mr. De Grasse won this race and redefined a life’s worth of effort, yearning and – one guesses – a touch of resentment in typical times, we’d get a typical response.
But things aren’t normal and nor was Mr. De Grasse’s performance. It was an epochal outing in apocalyptic times. So you got the little bit extra that reminds you how deep the still waters of any sporting second best can run.
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