Two one-hundredths of a second. Blink and you would miss it – quite literally. But 0.02 seconds is now all that stands between Rohan Browning becoming just the second Australian in history to sprint 100m in less than 10 seconds.
Browning is a natural showman. His first post-race comments to the media, gathered in the bowels of the Tokyo Olympic Stadium on a muggy Saturday night, were a signature mix of bravado and intelligent humour. “If I can take one thing away from it, it’s Australia – don’t go out and anti-vax protest, stay home and get around the underdogs at the Olympics,” he joked.
But Browning’s time in the 100m heats was no laughing matter. Running from lane one in the final heat, the Sydneysider stopped the clock in 10.01 seconds – a personal best. Browning beat a stunned Yohan Blake, a former 100m world champion and relay teammate of Usain Bolt, to guarantee a spot in Sunday’s semi-finals.
“I’ve wanted to get [Blake] for a long time,” said Browning. “All the world’s best guys are on my hitlist. I knew that you’d have to front up to everyone at some point. When I looked at the startlist I thought: ‘Gee, I’ve probably got one of the tougher heats.’ But you’d rather do it the hard way because it’s so much more satisfying.”
A self-confessed sports history nerd, Browning’s performance made history. An Australian has not progressed from the heats of the men’s Olympic 100m since 2004. An Australian has not won a heat in the men’s 100m since 1956, on home soil in Melbourne. That was also the last time an Australian man won a medal in the race, with Hec Hogan claiming bronze. After Browning’s stunning dash on Saturday, anything is possible.
For Browning, a 23-year-old law student, the time was a statement of intent. He has been running fast all season, even breaking the 10 second barrier (albeit with an illegal tailwind). There is no doubting Browning’s confidence – in March, when asked by Guardian Australia about his medal hopes in Tokyo, he responded: “Why not? Why not me?” But it is one thing to beat other Australians in domestic races (which is all Browning has been able to do, given the pandemic-induced travel restrictions). It is another entirely to win on the world stage, under the Olympic Stadium’s bright lights.
“I still won that race – so there’s more to pull out of myself you know,” said Browning when asked if he could go even faster in the semis. “I can definitely be pushed a bit more. It’s the one thing that I’ve probably been lacking on the Australian circuit. It’s the thing that I think a lot of people pointed to when they would say I wasn’t capable of making a final or doing well at this Olympics. It’s nice to prove people wrong.”
Across seven heats, just four sprinters went faster than Browning. The Australian will race from lane six on Sunday evening; Browning ran quicker than all but one of his semi-final rivals in the heats. To qualify for the final, he only needs to repeat that feat – the top two from each of the three semi-finals progress, along with the next two fastest overall.
Pre-Tokyo, Browning’s stated intent to reach the final seemed provocative – it has been so long since Australia had a sprinter of such repute. After his first sprint in Tokyo, Browning’s comments no longer appear to be wishful thinking. It seems only a matter of time until he joins Patrick Johnson as the only Australians to run sub-10 (Johnson’s fastest time, 9.93, was also recorded in Japan).
Not that Browning is getting ahead of himself. “There’s no history until the final,” he was quick to insist. “That’s the thing about championship running – you could run a world record in the heat and it doesn’t mean anything unless you get on the podium. I’m taking it round by round but hopefully I’ve put a few people on notice now.
Browning was not the only Australian to have a good night at the track and field, with Matthew Denny throwing a significant personal best of 67.02m in the discus final. While Denny missed out on bronze by just five centimetres, his performance was the nation’s best-ever in the discus – both in terms of distance-thrown and placing. The performances bode well for Australia with a big athletics program in the week ahead and a number of medal opportunities.
On Sunday, when Browning returns to the track, he will have two things in his mind: qualifying for the final and breaking the 10 second barrier. “It’s a very simple sport,” he joked on Saturday. “Everyone has to run 100m.” Despite the magnitude of the occasion, Browning has not been overawed. If he can repeat that performance in the semi-final, and possibly even go two one-hundredths of a second faster, he will make history. “I just looked down my lane,” Browning said of his heat win, “and thought: ‘I gotta get to the end as quick as I can.’”