Men’s 100 metres final, this Sunday, 1.50pm (Irish time)
They were gathering around in small numbers on the streets outside just to get a look at the Main South Gate, and those of us fortunate to be allowed in.
Believe me, even after some repeat plays by now there is something eerily strange and subdued about walking up to a near empty and largely deserted Olympic Stadium. Especially one with the outer scale and inner history which greets you here in Tokyo, even more so on the weekend of the first few big finals on the track.
It takes some real pride of place in this great city too, set majestically around what feels like the old bleeding heart among the millions of arteries that is downtown Tokyo. It offers absolutely no relief from the sweltering heat.
Despite all the kind scheduling our media bus service between Olympic venues now runs to a timetable carved into water. It’s what happens in the most populous metropolitan area in the world, with around 38 million residents neatly packed in together.
We can at least use private taxis now too, as long as we follow the advice to travel solo, and we can only order from reception in the hotel lobby, T-shirt drenched to the back before we even walk outside.
In her excellent English she politely enquires where I want to go, and when I tell her the Tokyo Olympic Stadium she raises a big smile from behind her facemask.
“Men’s 100 metres?” she asks. “Who will win the men’s 100 metres?”
It’s true, you don’t have to go very far in the world to be asked that question when it comes to the track finals at the Olympics. Before leaving Dublin I got my haircut in my favourite Italian barber shop, and the first question I was asked there when the subject of Tokyo came up was: “Is Usain Bolt still running?
Fair question, actually. He may have retired after the World Championships in London in 2017, only these are the first Olympics since Sydney – 21 years ago already – which do not feature Bolt on the track.
Bolt was always going to be impossible to replace, the talk of who might succeed him in Tokyo as men’s 100 champion suitably hinged on whether he might at least prove worthy. All that talk of legends doesn’t easily go away, does it?
As a 17-year-old still leaning the trade, Bolt was eliminated in his heat of the 200 metres in Athens in 2004. Four years later, he won the first of three successive 100m and 200m doubles – the first and only sprinter to achieve that feat – and also helped Jamaica to three gold medals in the 4x100m relay (one which they had to give back, after team member Nesta Carter tested positive for a banned substance after Beijing in 2008).
Bolt was certainly still at the height of his powers in London 2012, setting his Olympic 100m record of 9.69 seconds, only his world record of 9.58 set in Berlin in 2009 being quicker. By Rio 2016 there were signs that dominance was perhaps fading, among those tipped to maybe someday succeed him being the 21 -year-old American sprinter named Trayvon Bromell.
Bromell was already well known to the Jamaican; he finished second behind Bolt in the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, aged only 20, before injury hampered his Rio preparations. He finished eighth and last in his first Olympic final.
Five years on, and Bromell is in Tokyo a very different athlete to the one he was then, by now firm favourite to succeed Bolt as Olympic 100m champion.
In Rio he also helped the US 4x100m relay team finish third, but in the final dive for the line he tore his Achilles tendon (and the US were later disqualified), the first of several crippling injuries which presented him with setback after setback over the years, which might well have ended his career.
He left Rio in a wheelchair, endured two botched surgeries soon after, and effectively missed the next three seasons. Bromell is well used to such pain and adversity; he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in St Petersburg, Florida, where poverty and gun-related violence were never far from his front door. He also endured several crippling injuries growing up, breaking both knees and his hip.
In July 2014 his father died after suffering a heart attack while in hospital, his mother working overtime to keep the family, only Bromell was a hungry kid who wanted to make a name in another way.
“People don’t understand, you can’t stop moving,” Bromell said last month, after running 9.77 in Florida, making him the seventh fastest man in 100m history. “You can’t just stop and get complacent. For me, every day is grind.”
It's the sort of comeback story which if Bromell does win would align him nicely as worthy successor if not to Bolt then certainly Bob Hayes who won the Olympic 100m inside this same stadium during its previous guise as the venue for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Like Bolt when winning in Rio, Hayes was just 21; like Bromell, he was born and raised in Florida, on the Jackonsville side. Like Bromell, his life involved a comeback story of a very different sort.
A year before Tokyo 1964, Hayes broke the world record in the 100 yard dash, clocking 9.1 seconds, which even a year out made him Olympic favourite. There is a story my dad told me about what happened in Tokyo, or at least a story going around the athletes' village not long afterwards. Before his 100m final, Hayes was sitting in his dorm room relaxing when in came Joe Frazier, the 21 year-old American boxer would later win heavyweight gold in Tokyo.
Frazier was looking for some chewing gum to help him relax, and in his search unwittingly knocked one of Hayes' racing spikes out of his bag. Without double-checking, Hayes arrived down the warm-up track with only one spike, and in the calm search for a replacement, found by pure chance that American 800m runner Tom Farrell also wore the same Adidas 100 spikes in Size 8, which Hayes wore in winning the final, equalling the world record with his 10.0 flat.
Later, in helping the weakened US team win the 4x100m relay, Hayes was hand-timed at 8.5 seconds for his 100m leg, 8.9 seconds being the slowest estimate, and either way quite possibly one of the fastest 100m run by any man at any time.
There's a story too France anchor runner Jocelyn Delecour told US lead-off runner Paul Drayton, "You can't win, all you have is Bob Hayes", to which Drayton have replied, "That's all we need, pal".
Now suitably nicknamed Bullet Bob, that was also his last race, as he was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. Seven years later, he became the only athlete to win both an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring, Hayes a key part of the Cowboys' first ever NFL champion side at the end of the 1971 season, making two receptions as they beat Miami 24-3 in Super Bowl VI.
Such was his turn of speed on the football field, opposing teams had to abandon their old man-to-man pass defences, only his life was to change again too. When he retired in 1976, Hayes soon plunged into alcohol and drug abuse and in 1978 was arrested by undercover narcotics agents, going from the top of the Olympic podium to a Texas prison cell in 15 years.
After several more mishaps, Hayes finally got himself straight again, and in 1994, aged 51, he got a degree in education from Florida A&M University, and two months after his death from kidney failure in 2002, they unveiled a seven-foot bronze statue of Hayes at Philip Randolp Park in Jackonsville.
Empty Olympic Stadium or not, from Tokyo 1964 to 2021, Bromell would know perfectly well the significance of picking up this particular baton from Hayes and bringing it back to Florida again.
Seven other events not to be missed
Women’s triple jump final: Sunday August 1st, 12.15pm (All times Irish)
Yulimar Rojas may have been delighted to win a silver medal in Rio five years ago, only things are a lot different now. Aged just 20 at the time, Rojas headed to those Games as the second-best jumper in the world and confirmed it with her second-place finish behind Colombia’s Caterine Ibarguen, the first Venezuelan woman to win an Olympic medal in athletics. That also marked the beginning of a new chapter in the women’s triple jump, and for Rojas, who has won all three major crowns since, World gold in 2017 and 2019, plus the world indoor title in 2018, nothing will be as good as gold this time.
Women’s 5,000m final: Monday, August 2nd, 1.40pm
Depending on who you listen to, Sifan Hassan is either completely mad or just slightly mad to attempt to win medals in the 1,500m, 5000m and 10,000m, or she may simply contend with just the two (she ran the 5,000m heats on Friday night) . Time will tell. What is certain is that with with Gudaf Tsegay, Ejgayehu Taye, Senbere Teferi, Hellen Obiri and Agnes Tirop also in the mix, the Tokyo entry list features five of the world’s 10 fastest ever 5000m women. Hassan in only 12th on that all-time list.
Men’s Pole vault final: Tuesday August 3rd, 11.20am
This was to be another classic showdown in the men’s pole vault, after Armand “Mondo” Duplantis has carried all before him since a silver medal finish behind world champion Sam Kendricks aged 19 in 2019, graduating from rising star to world record-holder in the blink of an eye. However, with Kendricks ruled out of Tokyo after testing positive for Covid-19, the pressure is off Mondo in some ways, and allows him to seek even greater heights perhaps, such as another world record. Nothing beats winning an Olympic medal with a world record performance and Mondo is among the few athletes here in Tokyo capable of doing that.
800m women’s final: Tuesday August 3rd, 12.40pm
Athing Mu doesn’t mind being called a prodigy. In fact, she embraces it. Still only 19, she won an American college title in her debut season, before winning the US Olympic trials last month. She makes no secret of what she wants to do next; become an Olympic champion. Great Britain have some young medal hopes of their own in Jemma Reekie, who placed second to Laura Muir in Monaco in 1:56.96, and Keely Hodgkinson, who won the European indoor title in March and improved to 1:57.51.
400m hurdles women final: Wednesday, August 4th, 3.30am
All predictions that Sydney McLaughlin would some day be a world record holder came true last month, her world record run of 51.90 at the US Olympic Trials in Eugene last month was spectacular and not surprising. At 20, she pushed compatriot Dalilah Muhammad to a world record at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, while setting the second-fastest time in history (52.23), but with Muhammad not going anywhere just yet. Just look out for Femke Bol too, who forms the other part of a triumvirate of super talents in this event, the tall Dutchwoman, who is also 21, also making some big moves this year.
Men’s 1,500m final: Saturday August 7th, 12.40pm
One of my top picks every four years, obviously, the question here being what must Jakob Ingebrigtsen do to stop Timothy Cheruiyot? The 25-year-old Kenyan had been unbeaten over the distance in 10 races over two years, a streak that included the Diamond League final and World Championships in 2019. However, an off day at the Kenyan Trials last month put an end to that winning streak, and he was only selected late on. In the meantime the Norwegian star is getting closer, last year, before his 20th birthday, he broke the European record in the event, clocking 3:28.68 to become the eighth-fastest man of all time. Cheruiyot we know will take it out, only can Ingebrigtsen out-kick him?
Men’s Marathon: Saturday, August 7th, 11pm
So 57 years after Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia became the first man to win back to back marathon titles, in 1960 in Rome and then here in Tokyo in 1964 – a feat only ever once repeated by East German Waldemar Cierpinski, the winner in Montreal in 1976 and Moscow in 1980, can marathon world record-holder Eliud Kipchoge do the same here? He went the five years after Rio unbeaten, until London last year, before bouncing back to winning in Enschede in 2:04:30. It may be staged 800km north of Tokyo in Sapporo, and run past midnight in Ireland, but expect a magnificent race to unfold. Kipchoge can expect a strong challenge from the Ethiopian squad, led by world champion Lelisa Desisa, Shura Kitata and Sisay Lemma.