Bangkok Post


Lamont Marcell Jacobs, a mixed-race Italian athlete, was not well known heading into the Olympics but he emerged as the world’s top sprinter, with two gold medals


The victory by the son of a black American father and white Italian mother broadened the public imaginatio­n of what Italian athletes, and Italians, can look like.

R omans ran laps around Lamont Marcell Jacobs as he stretched his legs on the track. “Ciao, champion,” said one-speed walker. “You make us old guys dream,” said one of the old guys.

Mr Jacobs bobbed his head to the music pumping out of a portable speaker and sauntered up to the starting line. Then he took a calming breath, crouched and exploded, running faster than

anyone on the track, anyone in Italy — almost anyone on Earth.

At the Tokyo Olympics, Mr Jacobs, a little-known Italian when the Games began, stunned the sports world by winning gold in the men’s 100-metre dash. In a nation where some populist politician­s have courted support by demonising black migrants, the victory by the son of a black American father and white Italian mother broadened the public imaginatio­n of what Italian athletes, and Italians, can look like. Mr Jacobs’ chiselled chin and clean-shaved dome became the new face of Italian excellence in a year with anabundanc­e of it. Italy had a record haul at the Olympics, 40 medals, including 10 in track and field. “All golds,” said Mr Jacobs, who had two of them in his backpack. Prime Minister Mario Draghi hasreceive­d a steady stream of Italian champions and award winners in recent months. The national soccer team beat England in Julytowin the European soccercham­pionship. An Italian reached the men’s final at Wimbledon. A Roman band won the Eurovision songcontes­t. Italy’s men’s and women’s volleyball teams wonthe European championsh­ips. In the days before Mr Jacobs hit thetrack, Italy tookhome theWorldPa­stry Cup.The other week, an Italianwon a NobelPrize in physics. “Seeingthe others win automatica­lly gives you a will to win,” said Mr Jacobs, 27,who is languid when notrunning­a 9.8-second 100-metre. After the sprinter won his race, Gianmarco Tamberi, whohad just won goldinthe high jump, leapt into hisarms. Theirembra­ce with the Italianfla­g became emblematic of Italian achievemen­t, and socialprog­ress. “Italians allremembe­r it,” Mr Jacobs said. In the ensuing months, he has taken a break and received gifts and many paintings of himrunning. (“Now a statue is coming, I don’t know what to do.” He is in negotiatio­ns forendorse­ments but reluctantl­y turneddown a suborbital flightwith Virgin because “in space no one knows how the body changes”. He has also focused on maintainin­g 700,000 new followers of his Instagram account.

“It’s not like a job,” he said with exasperati­on after posting another picture of himself at the track. “It is a job.”

A significan­t portion of Mr Jacobs’ social media output consists of photos of him looking model-serious or showing off a ripped torso abundantly tattooed with his children’s names and birth dates, inspiratio­nal phrases, a tiger and a Roman gladiator. Other posts include risque Jacuzzi shots with Nicole Daza, the mother of two of his three children.

He recently proposed marriage to her with a fireworks display and is looking forward to “a multi-ethnic wedding” with her Ecuadorian family at Lake Garda. But some critics have tried to cut Mr Jacobs’ Olympic honeymoon short by doubting he will ever race again. The British media, suspicious of his dipping under the 10-second mark only this year, have levelled accusation­s of doping. He chalked it up to sour grapes after Italy won the soccer championsh­ip, and then he and his teammates beat the British by a nose in the 400-metre relay. Britain “losteveryt­hing”, he said with a shrug and joked about the British announcer who memorably screamed “No! It’s Italy”at the 400-metre finish line. That a member of Britain’s own relay team tested positive for doping “makes you laugh,” he said. Neverthele­ss, the accusation­s saddened him, he said, because they undercut years of hard work andsacrifi­ce. “They don’t know my past,” he said. In Mr Jacobs’ telling, it wasn’t aforeign substance that pushed him forward but domestic baggage that had held him back. He explained hissudden burst intothe upper echelon of elite sprinters as a result of hiring a mental coach, Nicoletta Romanazzi, at the endof 2020.She convinced him,hesaid, that to get over the tension that deadened his legs before races,hehad to build a relationsh­ip with the fatherwho vanished in his infancy. They eventually had some phone conversati­ons and exchanged text messages.

“Becau I was abandoned as little boy, I feared that if I didn’t do things right, people could abandon me,”he said, adding that the fear of failure paralysed him. “She talked to me constantly about this abandonmen­t thing.”

His parents were teenagers whenthey metat a US military base in the northern city of Vicenza, where his fatherwas posted.They moved to a baseinElPa­so, Texas, where Mr Jacobswas born. His father was sent to South Korea. Mr Jacobs’ mother returned to Desenzano del Garda, a vacation town in northern Italy, expecting the couple to reunite there. “He disappeare­d,” Mr Jacobs said of his father. Raised as an Italian, Mr Jacobs spokenoEng­lish and spent hours withhis grandparen­ts. His mother started acleanings­ervice beforeopen­ing a small hotel, where she watched him win the gold. (“Incredible,” she said in front of amakeshift shrine to herson. “To get a gold like this, beating all the Americans.”)

Mr Jacobs’ cousins were obsessed with motorbike racing when theywere young,but he justmade motor sounds with his mouth as he ran around. “The human little motorbike,” his grandfathe­r called him. “I ran all the time,” Mr Jacobs said. “Always.” At age seven,hebecame aware of his speed, but alsohis skincolour, and asked hismother if he was adopted. To better explain his origins, she had his

father’s mother come visit.

When he was 13, he and his mother attended an American family reunion in Orlando, Florida, where he met his father for the first time. He also attended barbecues and stared blankly at his American cousins, not understand­ing a word they said except that they called him a “mama’s boy”.

While he rarely felt any direct prejudice in Italy, he returned more sensitive to the disparagin­g way some people talked about African migrants around town.

It still bothers him that one of his teammates in the 400-metre relay, Fausto Desalu, the son of a Nigerian single mother, could not become a citizen until age 18.

“Born and raised in Italy,” Mr Jacobs said of his teammate, criticisin­g a law that ties citizenshi­p to blood rather than birthplace. He hoped the team’s success would change something. “Often”, he said, “sport helps”.

Sports certainly helped him. A terrible student, often reprimande­d by the priests who now ask him to talk to students (“Noooo,” he said, “no, no”), he was discovered by a local athletics coach.

He became a long jumper under the wing of another coach who became a father figure but had quirky training methods. He made Mr Jacobs run with Nordic walking sticks on the track and up corridors of vineyards in Garda. “He had some strange ideas,” Mr Jacobs said.

By 20, Mr Jacobs had become a police officer, although he was never expected to chase down criminals. Italy’s law enforcemen­t agencies employ the country’s athletic talent, giving them salaries, training facilities — and weapons. “I have a gun and handcuffs and a badge,” he said, pulling the badge issued in 2014 out of his bag and admiring his now-extinct curly hair on his police ID. He is still an officer and noted that he was now due for apromotion. “Having won the Olympics,” he said, “they give you another rank.” Frustrated with his injuries and lacklustre results before Tokyo, his superiors in the police connected him in late 2015with Paolo Camossi, a former world champion in the triple jump, and a member of the prison police. “I arrest them, he puts themin jail,” Mr Jacobs joked on the track as Camossi timed his sprints and gave him pointers. They trained hard and ultimately switched him from the longjump to sprints, and thisyear, hestarted setting personal bests.

By the time the Tokyo games rolled around, something clicked and Italy had a new hero.

“We’re proud,” said Ennio Rossi, 79, who walked briskly by Mr Jacobs on the track “to train with th world’s fastest man.”

 ?? ??
 ?? ?? Fellow runners take pictures with Mr Jacobs at Rosi Stadium, where he trains, in Rome.
Fellow runners take pictures with Mr Jacobs at Rosi Stadium, where he trains, in Rome.
 ?? ?? Mr Jacobs shows a fellow runner a painting of himself that someone had given him in Rome.
Mr Jacobs shows a fellow runner a painting of himself that someone had given him in Rome.
 ?? ?? Lamont Marcell Jacobs with his medals in Rome.
Lamont Marcell Jacobs with his medals in Rome.

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