August 14, 2016 9:34 pm
Updated: August 15, 2016 7:58 pm

Rio 2016: Canadian Andre De Grasse wins bronze in the 100m final

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RIO DE JANEIRO – Andre De Grasse stood shoulder to shoulder with Usain Bolt behind the starting blocks Sunday night, the Canadian in Lane 7, the Jamaican star in Lane 6, a good eight inches separating them in height.

They could have been big brother and little brother. The present and the future.

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De Grasse raced to Olympic bronze in the 100 metres in his Olympic debut, giving Canada its first medal in the marquee event since 1996. Bolt won gold in 9.81, reviled American Justin Gatlin took silver in 9.89, and De Grasse finished in a personal best time of 9.91 seconds.

 

The 21-year-old from Markham, Ont., had talked a day earlier about possibly unseating the world’s greatest sprinter in Rio. It didn’t happen on this night. But in the moments after the race, a Canadian flag draped around his shoulders, De Grasse made it pretty clear: there will be a night.

“(Bolt) always motivates me to come out there and try to beat him, but he’s just a different beast, a different animal. I just know I’ve got to work a lot harder if I want to beat him next year,” De Grasse said.

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He also became the first Canadian male athlete to win a medal in Rio. Canada’s first 12 medals were won by women.

The bronze was the latest step on De Grasse’s mercurial rise, from two seasons at Coffeyville College, to a season at the University of Southern California, where he won a pair of NCAA titles, to double gold at the Pan Am Games, to a pair of world bronze medals last summer.

He turned pro this past winter, signing a US$11.25 million deal to be the next face of Puma. The current face, fittingly, is Bolt.

De Grasse woke up Sunday morning to post a simple message on Twitter: “So… Looks like tonight is the night…#NothingPersonal #Rio2016”

Lining up for the final hours later, he was the second-youngest runner in the field, yet looked completely unfazed by his surroundings, or of the history that was about to unfold. But then, he never does.

He jogged out briskly during the pre-race walk-in introductions, popping his Canada jersey at the camera, and breaking into wide smile.

“I just had a lot of confidence,” he said afterward. “This is the healthiest I’ve ever been. At the beginning of the season I was a little bit worried, I didn’t feel like myself compared to last year and I was contemplating a little bit of, was this a good decision or not to leave USC. And it came along.”

 

He and the 29-year-old Bolt, who is gunning for the triple-triple in Rio – three gold medals in three consecutive Games – joked with other during the warmup, and even during pre-race strides down the track.

And moments after the race, and Bolt had struck his lightning bolt pose for seemingly a million cameras, he found De Grasse for a huge hug and the two walked arm-in-arm.

“It kind of felt like it was fun,” De Grasse said. “I wasn’t even thinking about it too serious when you’ve got a guy like him.”

De Grasse also found his mom Beverley in the crowd. She’d fretted about how her young son would fare under the huge pressure weighing on his lean shoulders. She needn’t have worried.

“She was very emotional, she was very proud of me, and I was just excited to see her, it was a great feeling,” De Grasse said, with a wide smile.

The Canadian star lamented not running the perfect race. When he saw Bolt start to pull away from the pack at 70 metres, he tried to go with him.

“But (Bolt) just had that extra gear,” De Grasse said. “I probably did a couple of things wrong in the beginning of the race that cost me in the end, but overall, I feel like I’m happy with it. After battling a couple of injuries at the beginning of the season, it’s an incredible feeling for me.”

“I’m so young,” he added, “and these guys have been racing for so long, I feel like I still have a lot to learn in the sport.”

Bolt has talked about this being his last Olympics, while Gatlin is 34. When asked if De Grasse will be the man to watch four years from now in Tokyo, Athletics Canada head coach Peter Eriksson said: “I think so, definitely.

“He’s now on the stage where he can be the greatest Canadian athlete ever.”

The Rio Games have been touted as Bolt’s swan song, and fans in the near-capacity stadium serenaded the Jamaican star and showman with chants of “Bolt! Bolt! Bolt!”

Two hours before the first race of the night, weary fans sat in a line that snaked up and down for some 400 metres outside Olympic Stadium – or Estadio Olimpico Joao Havelange – a 60,000-seat venue with a sweeping white roof built for the 2007 Pan American Games.

Security was intense, as dozens of soldiers lined the hardscrabble streets of Engenho de Dentro, where coiled barb wire and shards of glass protect houses.

There is little time for rest for the sprinters, meanwhile. De Grasse will face Bolt and Gatlin again in the 200 and 4×100 relay.

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