Marcell Jacobs: “People’s criticism hit me really hard.” It came from everywhere’ | athletics

A A few days after speaking with Marcell Jacobs, he receives a call from a member of his team. Amid logistical discussions about where and when the reigning 100-meter Olympic champion might be available for a few photos, she has a message that Jacobs would like to pass on to her.

“He wanted to thank you for asking the tough questions,” she says, “and for giving him the opportunity to answer them.”

Those questions have never really stopped for the Italian, whose victory in Tokyo almost three years ago was one of the biggest Olympic athletics surprises in recent memory. First, they focused on how a former long jumper could rise so stratospherically to claim the biggest sprint title just three months after breaking the 10-second barrier for the first time.

There was also an unpleasant association with a nutritionist who was caught up in a police investigation into steroid distribution but was later cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. And the unusual case of Jacobs’ subsequent conspicuous absence, when he chose not to cash in on his overnight glory by pulling out of scheduled races and ending his season immediately after the Tokyo Games.

When Jacobs and I last spoke two years ago, he was clearly outraged by what he described as “mud-slinging” against him.

Life has changed unimaginably since that unexpected August evening in the Japanese capital, but new questions have arisen. Why, late last year, when he decided to move on to new goals, did he choose Rana Reider, a coach currently serving a one-year suspended sentence for a relationship with one of his athletes that “displayed a power imbalance”?

What happened in the last few years that led to Jacobs not making the 100m final at consecutive world championships? And how worried is he about his legacy as he prepares to defend his Olympic title this summer? Is there a fear that he could forever be labeled a one-hit wonder?

For the past six months, the forgotten man of the global sprint has lived a life of obscurity. Since his young family moved from their home in Rome to a massive, luxurious condominium in Jacksonville, Florida, last fall, Italy’s star athlete has embraced his newfound anonymity. The only time he was recognized away from the track was when he went to the local utilities office to get electricity and water hooked up and happened to bump into an enthusiastic athletics fan.

He takes his children on the school run without giving them a second glance, hones his golf skills on the golf course adjacent to his house, and often relaxes by testing out various weapons at the local shooting range.

“I could go to the store in socks and no one would recognize me, so I can do whatever I want,” says the invisible man with more than a million social media followers. “It’s very different from life in Italy, but it helps me stay emotionally calm.”

At the end of last season, the 29-year-old Jacobs decided he needed a change: “New stimulation, new motivation.” The isolated highlights – World Indoor Championships and European Championships in 2022 – were lost in the face of the disappointment of failing to reach 100 twice. m final of the World Cup, largely forgotten. Only once since he set his European record of 9.80 seconds and won Olympic gold has he run the distance under 10 seconds.

Because his name often disappeared from start lists as race day approached, he became known more for his absences than his achievements. Questions arose again. The backlash hurt.

“People’s criticism hit me really hard,” he admits. “It came from everywhere – Italy and abroad. Like I didn’t compete because I was scared. I’ve never been afraid of anything in my life. I didn’t compete because I wasn’t able to. It was a difficult time because you train to get results and it was hard not to get them. The two years after the Olympics were difficult years. I really needed something that would excite me.”

The underlying problem, he explains, is physical and “complicated”; a problem with his back and sciatic nerve that was difficult to diagnose and correct. But he also recognized that it would take a “radical change… not just physically, but emotionally, within myself” to have any chance of winning the Olympic title.

Marcell Jacobs beats Akani Simbine and Fred Kerley to win Olympic gold in 2021, but the Italian has struggled since then. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images

After leaving Paolo Camossi – Jacobs’ coach from his days as a moderately successful long jumper – he foregone other options in Italy and instead moved to a country with a complicated personal history.

Jacobs was born in El Paso, Texas, to an American father and an Italian mother. He moved to Italy when he was six months old and didn’t see his father for more than a dozen years, until an awkward family reunion. Since returning to his native country, he has spent a lot of time rekindling relationships with his father’s family – many of whom live in Florida – but admits: “I’m a very cautious person, so it’s a little difficult.” While his English has improved significantly with the fame and demands that came with his Olympic triumph, he conducts most of this interview with a translator, after initially attempting to give the first few answers in his second language.

The driving force behind the move to Florida was the opportunity to work with Reider, one of the world’s leading sprint coaches but who was subject to an 18-month investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct that ended in a one-year suspended sentence. Reider’s attorney said his client “acknowledged a consensual romantic relationship with an adult athlete that represented a power imbalance.”

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Jacobs explains: “I was really looking for a coach who had no qualms, concerns or insecurities about coaching an Olympian. Of course, I checked the situation before signing up with him. I didn’t sign up to be his best friend. I signed up to work with him. But of course I made sure all the allegations were cleared up before I contacted him.

“I am completely satisfied with the choice I made. I repeat: I am here to train as hard as possible. I’m here to get results and I feel happy with the decision I made.”

This decision landed him in arguably the toughest male sprint training group in the world. While Jacobs was leagues ahead of everyone else in Italy, he now works with reigning 200m Olympic champion Andre De Grasse, American double 100m world champion Trayvon Bromell, 4x100m world champion Jerome Blake, a Canadian teammate from De Grasse, along with sub-10 second runner Abdul Hakim Sani Brown of Japan: five men with the ambition to reach the Olympic 100m final and challenge gold medal favorite Noah Lyles.

Marcell Jacobs moved to Florida to work with trainer Rana Reider. Photo: Malcolm Jackson/The Guardian

In an event that creates prowling lions out of its protagonists, surely the clash of egos is a recipe for disaster? “When I started training with the group, I wondered why I had been training alone for so long. Training in a group is incredibly motivating. At the moment we are a group that pushes and supports each other. We are here for each other. Of course we will compete against each other. We’ll have to see what happens in the next few months, but for now everyone is just training together. The camaraderie of training together is really meaningful to me.”

As for his other difficult professional relationship – with Italian nutritionist Giacomo Spazzini – Jacobs remains adamant. Immediately after the 100m gold medal in Tokyo, Spazzini claimed he had helped make Jacobs an Olympic champion, but it emerged that he was implicated in a police investigation into steroid distribution. Spazzini was acquitted in criminal court but reportedly received a 15-year doping ban, which was later overturned on appeal. Jacobs was never suspected of any wrongdoing or involved in the police investigation.

Jacobs insisted at the time that he had already cut ties with Spazzini when the case came to light, and now confirms that he has had no contact with him since. Jacobs maintains he acted as quickly as possible and believes the level of criticism and doubt leveled against him following his triumph in Tokyo was only partly due to the association with Spazzini.

“I don’t think all the ugliness that came after the Olympics came from him specifically,” he says. “I think there was a lot of shock and discomfort when an Italian won gold in the 100m. Looking back, I wish I had known about his problems earlier. But I didn’t do it. I wasn’t aware of it, so there’s not much I can do about it. Of course, if I could go back, I would have done things differently if I had known. But I didn’t do it. You can’t change the past.”

There is an audible undertone of defiance in his voice; a sense of contempt for those who have tried to denounce or belittle his Olympic achievements. That number only seems to be rising in the relatively quiet, troubled years since, but he insists his motivation to improve the odds again in Paris this summer is internal and not born of a desire to prove something to others.

“Winning a second gold medal wouldn’t mean big changes for me or my image,” says Jacobs, who is preparing to return for the season in April. “Of course it would be positive, but coming from a country where no one has ever won an Olympic gold medal in the 100m before me, what I achieved was historic and will always remain historic.

“Over the years I have learned that I need to focus on what I want and what I believe I can do. Not to show others, but to show myself. A lot has happened in the two and a half years since I won gold, so I have to show what I can do.”

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