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Feature12 Jul 2022

Italian 4x100m team out to show Tokyo triumph wasn’t a one-off


The triumphant Italian 4x100m team in Tokyo (© Getty Images)

On the face of it, it seemed like another shock victory for Italy. But on reflection, the Azzurri’s triumph in the men’s 4x100m was a fitting end to the nation’s athletics campaign at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

By that point, Italy had already secured four athletics gold medals, courtesy of Marcell Jacobs in the 100m, Gianmarco Tamberi in the high jump, and Massimo Stano and Antonella Palmisano in the men’s and women’s 20km race walks.

So by the time Italian 4x100m anchor leg runner Filippo Tortu crossed the finish line in first place, there was more a sense of déjà vu than one of complete surprise.

“I couldn’t believe it had really happened,” said Tortu, the fourth and final athlete in the Italian running order after Lorenzo Patta, Jacobs and Eseosa Desalu. “After crossing the finish line, I asked my teammate Lorenzo if we had really won the gold medal. It was crazy.

“I thought I would run out of tears,” he added. “I wasn’t able to sleep that night after the race.”

Filippo Tortu and Eseosa Desalu celebrate Italy's 4x100m success in Tokyo

Filippo Tortu and Eseosa Desalu celebrate Italy's 4x100m success in Tokyo (© Getty Images)

The team’s winning time of 37.50 tied the Japanese all-comers’ record that had been set by the USA at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. It also meant that Italy moved to fifth on the world all-time list behind Jamaica, USA, Great Britain and Japan.

“What made the difference was our team spirit,” said Desalu. “We always believed that we could win the gold medal. We are a great group and we have worked a lot together.”

Lead leg runner Patta was the youngest member of the team, but he says his inexperience worked in his favour.

“There were no spectators in Tokyo and this helped me, because I’m not used to competing in front of big crowd,” said the 21-year-old. “I was so focused on making a good start and handing over the baton to Marcell Jacobs, and it could not have gone better.”

Jacobs, who had won the Olympic 100m title five days prior, ran a storming second leg on the back straight to earn his second gold of the Games.

“I never would have expected to win two Olympic gold medals before the Games,” said Jacobs. “But before stepping on the track we looked at each other and we realised that we could achieve a great result.

“We were determined to win a medal and we believed in ourselves.”

Tortu, who held off a strong challenge from Great Britain on the anchor leg in Tokyo, says it was very much a team effort – beyond even the four men who carried the baton for Italy that day.

Filippo Tortu anchors Italy to 4x100m gold in Tokyo

Filippo Tortu anchors Italy to 4x100m gold in Tokyo (© Getty Images)

“It’s difficult to talk about just me because the relay is run in four,” he said. “We also owe a lot of thanks to Filippo Di Mulo and Giorgio Frinolli, the national sprint coaches, who have trained us over the past few years, along with Davide Manenti and Wanderson Polanco, who did not run in Tokyo but were part of the relay team.

“But we have to put Tokyo’s legendary moments behind us; it’s important to confirm that Tokyo wasn’t a one-off. We all share the desire to improve individually – we are a very competitive group, and because the level of Italian sprinting has risen a lot, everyone wants a spot on the relay.”

History repeating

A lot can happen in 12 months.

In the aftermath of Italy’s relay triumph, much of the focus was understandably on Jacobs, the individual 100m champion. His 2022 campaign started well as he put together an unbeaten indoor season which peaked with 60m victory at the World Athletics Indoor Championships Belgrade 22. He broke the European record with 6.41 and defeated defending champion Christian Coleman, the US sprinter who also won the world 100m title in 2019.

But Jacobs’ outdoor season has been a different story. Niggling injury problems meant he was forced to postpone the start of his season. It then got off to a promising start on 18 May in Savona, where he clocked a wind-assisted 9.99.

A few more race withdrawals followed, but Jacobs returned to action at the Italian Championships in late June, winning in 10.12 (-0.9m/s). He hasn’t raced since then, but he is cautiously optimistic that his body will hold up for the World Athletics Championships Oregon22.

Marcell Jacobs (centre) in the 4x100m heats at the Tokyo Olympic Games

Marcell Jacobs (centre) in the 4x100m heats at the Tokyo Olympic Games (© Getty Images)

Whether he’ll be able to reproduce the kind of form that carried him to three global titles over the past 12 months is another matter entirely, but he no longer feels the pressure to prove himself. His triumph in Belgrade went a long way to doing that, he says.

“I showed (with his world indoor 60m win) that my Olympic gold was not a fluke,” says Jacobs. “It was very important to show that my win in Tokyo was the result of years of dedication.

“It’s crazy to become the successor of Usain Bolt as Olympic 100m champion. I grew up watching all his races. It was my childhood dream to win the Olympic Games.

“I hope to win more medals in the 100m and 4x100m at the World Championships and European Championships, but I know now that I will be the athlete people are chasing,” he says. “My rivals want to beat me.”

Indeed, Jacobs was pushed all the way at the Italian Championships, where former hurdler Chituru Ali finished just 0.04 adrift in 10.16, close to the 10.15 PB he set one week prior. Ali’s improved form has earned him a spot on Italy’s 4x100m squad.

Tokyo lead leg runner Patta, who has a best this year of 10.19, has been named on Italy’s 4x100m team along with Jacobs and Ali. It’s not clear whether Desalu and Tortu will be drafted into relay duties in Oregon, but both men have been selected for the 200m and so will be in Eugene ready to run if need be.

The Italian 4x100m team enter the Tokyo Olympic Stadium

The Italian 4x100m team enter the Tokyo Olympic Stadium (© Getty Images)

In fact, Tortu says the Olympic relay gold medal helped reignite his self-belief as an individual sprinter and he has now set his sights on some individual targets in the 200m.

“My goal is to win the 200m at the European Championships and to reach the World Championships final in that event,” says Tortu.

Desalu, meanwhile, has set himself some targets individually and as part of the relay team.

“I’m aiming to become the second Italian sprinter in history to break 20 seconds for 200m, after Pietro Mennea,” says Desalu, who set his PB of 20.13 when finishing sixth at the 2018 European Championships. “And with the 4x100m, our next goal is to break the European record (37.36, held by Great Britain). We have room for improvement. We have to set new goals.”

Di Mulo, the national sprint coach, says that although it’s likely the line-up in Oregon will be different than the quartet in Tokyo, he is hopeful that Italy can be just as competitive.

“The Olympic 4x100m gold medal is behind us now,” he says. “We will defend our honour as global champions at the World Championships in Eugene against the US team, who will be competing at home.

“It’s not easy to change a team that ranked fifth on the world all-time list among national teams, but there are good up-and-coming Italian sprinters who have the ambition to be part of the team, and the door is always open.

“It’s going to be tough but we want to be competitive.”

And as much as a relay is a team effort, much of their competitive output will rest on the fitness of Jacobs. But the Olympic champion knows just how much a relay victory means.

“The relay gold medal has more value than my individual 100m win, because the medal is shared by a group of four friends who have worked together for a long time to achieve this goal,” he says. “We made some mistakes in the past, but we learned from them. We are the best Italian athletics team ever.”

Diego Sampaolo for World Athletics