Grant Fisher competing in the Men's 10,000-meter Final at the Olympic Games in Tokyo on July 30, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
TOKYO — When architect Kengo Kuma designed Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium, he no doubt envisioned it being used in a different environment.
The venue in the city’s Kasumigaoka district is colossal in scale yet refined in style, a building meant to blend in with its surroundings yet stand out in its detail. On a warm summer night, the setting would be ideal for bringing together thousands of people to enjoy that most quintessential of Olympic sports: track and field.
The COVID-19 pandemic spoiled that vision, leaving most of the stadium’s 68,000 seats empty for the duration of the pandemic-delayed Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. On the opening night of track and field, however, that vision proved to be not entirely lost.
“You walk in, and it’s like walking into the Coliseum,” said Grant Fisher, an American 10,000-meter runner, who finished fifth in the first track final at the Tokyo Games.
It wasn’t just the physical space, with its clean lines and intricate roof held up by latticed wood and steel.
When the Ethiopian runner Selemon Barega won the 10K gold medal, his arms raised in victory as he crossed the line in 27 minutes, 43.22 seconds, a not insignificant roar arose from a corner of the stadium. Like in other venues here, the Olympic Stadium has space set aside for delegation members to cheer on their compatriots.
After the race, the gaggle of Ethiopia fans chanted and waved their national flag. Another group from Uganda matched their enthusiasm a few rows back, cheering on the silver and bronze medalists from that country.
Though certainly not a roar of 68,000, the vibe throughout the evening managed to feel, as much as possible, like a big competition.
“Obviously it would have been incredible to have fans,” said Elise Cranny, a 5,000-meter runner who, like Fisher, made her Olympic debut tonight. “But I still feel like the energy from the competitors and the stadium as a whole exceeded my expectations.”
Fisher’s event was the highlight Friday, the lone final before a flurry of them are held over the coming nine days. Competing in a field with the defending world champion and current world record holder (Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei) and the 2021 world leader (fellow Ugandan Jacob Kiplimo), to say nothing of the rising star Barega, the American trio of Fisher, Woody Kincaid and Joe Klecker were thrown into the fire in their first Olympic race.
“We did what we could to prepare,” Fisher, a former NCAA champion at Stanford, said, “but nothing prepares you like being out there. It’s physical, it’s choppy, guys are making moves.”
It was also hot, not to mention humid.
Fisher, competing in just his third official 10K, was able to stay within striking distance of the top runners going into the last lap, then unleashed a strong finishing kick to move up to fifth in 27:46.39. Cheptegei (27:43.63) and Kiplimo (27:43.88) took the silver and bronze medals, while Kincaid was 15th in 28:11.01, followed one spot later by Klecker in 28:14.18.
“I was just trying to race without fear, put myself in there and give myself a shot at the end,” Fisher, 24, said. “I was really happy with it. That whole thing, it never felt good. I bet even the guys that were 1-2-3 didn’t feel good in that race. I hope, because I felt that way.”
Cranny was among several American athletes who advanced through preliminary rounds in their respective events earlier in the day. She joined Karissa Schweizer in qualifying for the 5K final on Aug. 2.
After initially being disqualified, the mixed 4x100-meter relay team was reinstated and will be allowed to compete in Saturday’s final. The U.S. ran the fastest time in its heat. Lynna Irby, running the second leg, was initially ruled to have been in the wrong area to receive the baton from teammate Elija Godwin.
“We are human, we can make mistakes,” Godwin said.
One of the most anticipated meetings in Tokyo will be that of Rai Benjamin and his Norwegian rival Karsten Warholm in the men’s 400-meter hurdles.
At the Olympic trials, Benjamin posted what was then the second fastest time ever at 46.83 seconds. Days later, Warholm did one better, running a blazing 46.70 to eclipse the 29-year-old record.
Benjamin, who finished second to Warholm at the 2019 world championships, downplayed any talk of lowering Warholm’s record in Tokyo.
“I’m just here to win a gold medal for Team USA and for myself,” he said. “I’m really ready. I am just focused on winning, that is it.”
Fans eager to see the two stars face off could now have two opportunities. Benjamin ran 48.60 to win his heat, while Warholm won his in 48.65. They’ll meet in a semifinal on Sunday, though the real fireworks are expected to come in the final on Aug. 3. Also advancing to the semis were Americans Kenneth Selmon (48.61) and David Kendziera (49.23).
“It was nice to come out here and get a controlled one,” Benjamin said. “It’s first round and I feel pretty good.”
The troika of star 800-meter runners Ajee Wilson (2:00.02), Athing Mu (2:01.10) and Raevyn Rogers (2:01.42) each moved on to tomorrow’s semifinal. All three women’s 100-meter sprinters — Teahna Daniels (11.04), Jenna Prandini (11.11) and Javianne Oliver (11.15) — moved on to Saturday semifinals as well.
Also moving on were men’s high jumpers JuVaughn Harrison and Shelby McEwen (both 2.28 meters), Bernard Keter (8:17.31) in the men’s steeplechase, Sam Mattis (63.74 m) in the men’s discus, Keturah Orji (14.26 m) in the women’s triple jump, and Raven Saunders (19.22 m) in the women’s shot put.