The Italian Lamont Jacobs: a surprise hero after Olympic gold


ROME – Romans ran laps around Lamont Marcell Jacobs as he stretched his legs on the track. “Champion Ciao,” said a speed walker. “You make us dream, the old people,” said one of the old people.

Mr Jacobs nodded at the sound of trap music coming out of a portable speaker and rushed to the start line. Then he took a soothing breath, crouched down 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 at the start of the Games, stunned the sports world by winning gold in the men’s 100 meters. In a country where some populist politicians have sought support in demonizing black migrants, the victory of the son of a black American father and a white Italian mother has widened the public imagination on what Italian athletes can look like and Italians.

Mr. Jacobs’ chiseled chin and shaved dome have become the new face of Italian excellence in one year with an abundance of it. Italy collected a record at the Olympics, 40 medals, including 10 in athletics. “All gold,” said Jacobs, who had two in his backpack.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi has received a constant stream of Italian champions and laureates in recent months. The national football team beat England in July to win the European Football Championship. An Italian reached the men’s final at Wimbledon. A Roman group won the Eurovision Song Contest. Italian men’s and women’s volleyball teams won the European Championships. In the days leading up to Jacobs on the track, Italy won the Pastry World Cup. This week, an Italian won a Nobel Prize in physics.

“Seeing others win automatically gives you the will to win,” said Jacobs, 27, who is languid when not running a 9.8-second 100-meter. After the sprinter won his race, Gianmarco Tamberi, who had just won gold in the high jump, jumped into his arms. Their embrace with the Italian flag has become emblematic of Italian success and social progress.

“Italians all remember it,” said Jacobs.

In the months that followed, he took a break and received gifts and many paintings of him running. (“Now a statue is coming, I don’t know what to do.”) He’s negotiating for endorsements, but grudgingly refused a suborbital flight with Virgin because “in space, no one knows how the body exchange”. He also focused on retaining 700,000 new followers of his Instagram account.

“It’s not As a job, ”he said in exasperation after posting another photo of himself on the track. “This is a work.”

A significant part of Mr. Jacobs’ social media output consists of photos of him looking like a serious model or showing a ripped torso heavily tattooed with his children’s names and birthdates, inspirational phrases , a tiger and a Roman gladiator. Other posts include risky jacuzzi photos with Nicole Daza, the mother of two of her three children.

He recently offered to marry her with fireworks and is looking forward to “a multi-ethnic wedding” with his Ecuadorian family at Lake Garda.

But some critics have tried to cut Mr Jacobs’ Olympic honeymoon short by doubting that he will ever resume racing. The British media, suspects of his passage under the bar of 10 seconds only this year, have brought charges of doping. He attributed this to sour grapes after Italy won the football championship and then he and his teammates beat the Brits by a nose in the 400-meter relay.

Britain “lost everything,” he said with a shrug and joked about the British announcer who memorable yelled “No! This is Italy»At the finish line of the 400 meters. That a member of the British relay team tested positive for doping “Makes you laugh,” he said. Nonetheless, the accusations saddened him, he said, as they undermined years of hard work and sacrifice.

“They don’t know my past,” he says.

In Mr. Jacobs’ account, it was not some foreign substance that pushed him forward, but domestic baggage that held him back.

He explained his sudden rise to the top echelon of elite sprinters following the hiring of a mental trainer, Nicoletta Romanazzi, end of 2020. She convinced him, he said, that to overcome the tension that numbed his legs before the races, he had to form a relationship with the father who passed out in his infancy. They ended up having phone conversations and texting.

“Because I was abandoned when I was a little boy, I feared that if I didn’t do things right people might abandon me,” he said, adding that the fear of failure paralyzed him. “She kept telling me about this whole abandonment thing.”

His parents were teenagers when they met at a US military base in the northern city of Vicenza, where his father was stationed. They moved to a base in El Paso, Texas, where Mr. Jacobs was born. The father was sent to South Korea. Mr Jacobs’ mother has returned to Desenzano del Garda, a holiday town in northern Italy, expecting the couple to meet there.

“He is missing,” Mr Jacobs said of his father.

Raised in Italian, Mr. Jacobs spoke no English and spent hours with his grandparents. Her mother started a cleaning service before opening a small hotel, where she watched him win gold. (“Incredible,” she said in front of a makeshift shrine to his son. “To get a gold medal like this, by beating all Americans.”)

Mr. Jacobs’ cousins ​​were obsessed with motorcycle racing when they were young, but he just made engine noises with his mouth while running. “The little human motorbike,” his grandfather called him.

“I was running all the time,” said Jacobs. “Always.”

At 7, he became aware of his speed, but also of his skin color, and asked his mother if he was adopted. To better explain her origins, she brought in her father’s mother.

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

While he rarely felt direct prejudices in Italy, he came back more sensitive to the way some people spoke of African migrants in the city. It still bothers him that one of his teammates in the 400-meter relay, Fausto Desalu, the son of a Nigerian single mother who takes care of Italian seniors, was only able to become a citizen at 18 years old.

“Born and raised in Italy,” Mr Jacobs said of his teammate, criticizing a law that ties citizenship to blood rather than place of birth. He hoped that the success of the team would make a difference. Often, he says, sport helps.

Sport has certainly helped him. Terrible student, often reprimanded by priests who now ask him to speak to students (“Noooo,” he said, “no, no”), he was discovered by a local athletics trainer.

He became a long jumper under the wing of another trainer who became a father figure, but had original training methods. He made Mr. Jacobs run with Nordic walking poles on the track and in the corridors of the vineyards of Garda.

“He had some weird ideas,” Mr. Jacobs said.

By 20, Mr. Jacobs had become a police officer, although he was never expected to prosecute criminals. Italian law enforcement employs the country’s sporting talents, providing them with salaries, training facilities and weapons.

“I have a gun, handcuffs and a badge,” he said, taking the badge issued in 2014 from his bag and admiring his now-extinguished curly hair on his police ID card. He is still an officer and noted that he now needs to be promoted. “After you win the Olympics,” he said, “they give you another rank. “

Frustrated by his injuries and poor results, his police superiors put him in touch at the end of 2015 with Paolo Camossi, a former triple jump world champion and member of the prison police.

“I stop them, he puts them in jail,” Mr Jacobs joked on the track as Mr Camossi timed his sprints and gave him directions.

They trained hard, went through a lot of ups and downs and eventually took him from long jump to sprints, and this year he started setting personal bests. By the time the Tokyo games were playing, something clicked and Italy had a new hero.

“We are proud,” said Ennio Rossi, 79, who walked briskly alongside Mr Jacobs on the track “to train with the fastest man in the world”.


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