ROME — Romans ran laps around Lamont Marcell Jacobs as he stretched his legs on the track. “Ciao champion,” said one speed walker. “You make us old guys dream,” said one of the old guys.
Mr. Jacobs bobbed his head to the trap music pumping out of a portable speaker and sauntered up to the starting line. Then he took a calming breath, crouched 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 when the Games began, stunned the sports world by winning gold in the men’s 100-meter dash. In a nation where some populist politicians have courted support by demonizing Black migrants, the victory by the son of a Black American father and white Italian mother broadened the public imagination of what Italian athletes, and Italians, can look like.
Mr. Jacobs’s chiseled chin and clean-shaved dome became the new face of Italian excellence in a year with an abundance of it. Italy had a record haul at the Olympics, 40 medals, including 10 in track and field. “All golds,” said Mr. Jacobs, who had two of them in his backpack.
Prime Minister Mario Draghi has received a steady stream of Italian champions and award winners in recent months. The national soccer team beat England in July to win the European soccer championship. An Italian reached the men’s final at Wimbledon. A Roman band won the Eurovision song contest. Italy’s men’s and women’s volleyball teams won the European championships. In the days before Mr. Jacobs hit the track, Italy took home the World Pastry Cup. This week, an Italian won a Nobel Prize in Physics.
“Seeing the others win automatically gives you a will to win,” said Mr. 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, leapt into his arms. Their embrace with the Italian flag became emblematic of Italian achievement, and social progress.
“Italians all remember it,” Mr. Jacobs said.
In the ensuing months, he has taken a break and received gifts and many paintings of him running. (“Now a statue is coming, I don’t know what to do.”) He is in negotiations for endorsements but reluctantly turned down a suborbital flight with Virgin because “in space no one knows how the body changes.” He has also focused on maintaining 700,000 new followers of his Instagram account.
“It’s not like a job,” he said with exasperation after posting another picture of himself at the track. “It is a job.”
A significant portion of Mr. Jacobs’s social media output consists of photos of him looking model-serious or showing off a ripped torso abundantly tattooed with his children’s names and birth dates, inspirational phrases, a tiger and a Roman gladiator. Other posts include risqué Jacuzzi shots with Nicole Daza, the mother of two of his three children.
He recently proposed marriage to her with a fireworks display and is looking forward to “a multiethnic wedding” with her Ecuadorean family at Lake Garda.
But some critics have tried to cut Mr. Jacobs’s Olympic honeymoon short by doubting he will ever race again. The British media, suspicious of his dipping under the 10-second mark only this year, have leveled accusations of doping. He chalked it up to sour grapes after Italy won the soccer championship, and then he and his teammates beat the British by a nose in the 400-meter relay.
Britain “lost everything,” he said with a shrug and joked about the British announcer who memorably screamed “No! It’s Italy” at the 400-meter finish line. That a member of Britain’s own relay team tested positive for doping “makes you laugh,” he said. Nevertheless, the accusations saddened him, he said, because they undercut years of hard work and sacrifice.
“They don’t know my past,” he said.
In Mr. Jacobs’s telling, it wasn’t a foreign substance that pushed him forward but domestic baggage that had held him back.
He explained his sudden burst into the upper echelon of elite sprinters as a result of hiring a mental coach, Nicoletta Romanazzi, at the end of 2020. She convinced him, he said, that to get over the tension that deadened his legs before races, he had to build a relationship with the father who vanished in his infancy. They eventually had some phone conversations and exchanged text messages.
“Because I was abandoned as a little boy, I feared that if I didn’t do things right, people could abandon me,” he said, adding that the fear of failure paralyzed him. “She talked to me constantly about this abandonment thing.”
His parents were teenagers when they met at an American military base in the northern city of Vicenza, where his father was posted. They moved to a base in El Paso, Texas, where Mr. Jacobs was born. The father was sent to South Korea. Mr. Jacobs’s mother returned to Desenzano del Garda, a vacation town in northern Italy, expecting the couple to reunite there.
“He disappeared,” Mr. Jacobs said of his father.
Raised as an Italian, Mr. Jacobs spoke no English and spent hours with his grandparents. His mother started a cleaning service before opening a small hotel, where she watched him win the gold. (“Incredible,” she said in front of a makeshift shrine to her son. “To get a gold like this, beating all the Americans.”)
Mr. Jacobs’s cousins were obsessed with motorbike racing when they were young, but he just made motor sounds with his mouth as he ran around. “The human little motorbike,” his grandfather called him.
“I ran all the time,” Mr. Jacobs said. “Always.”
At 7, he became aware of his speed, but also his skin color, and asked his mother if he was adopted. To better explain his origins, she had his father’s mother come visit.
When he was 13, he and his mother attended an American family reunion in Orlando, where he met his father for the first time. He also attended barbecues and stared blankly at his American cousins, not understanding a word they said except that they called him a “mama’s boy.”
While he rarely felt any direct prejudice in Italy, he returned more sensitive to the disparaging way some people talked about African migrants around town. It still bothers him that one of his teammates in the 400-meter relay, Fausto Desalu, the son of a Nigerian single mother who looks after Italian senior citizens, could not become a citizen until age 18.
“Born and raised in Italy,” Mr. Jacobs said of his teammate, criticizing a law that ties citizenship to blood rather than birthplace. He hoped the team’s success would change something. “Often,” he said, “sport helps.”
Sports certainly helped him. A terrible student, often reprimanded by the priests who now ask him to talk to students (“Noooo,” he said, “no, no”), he was discovered by a local athletics coach.
He became a long jumper under the wing of another coach who became a father figure, but had quirky training methods. He made Mr. Jacobs run with Nordic walking sticks on the track and up corridors of vineyards in Garda.
“He had some strange ideas,” Mr. Jacobs said.
By 20, Mr. Jacobs had become a police officer, though he was never expected to chase down criminals. Italy’s law enforcement agencies employ the country’s athletic talent, giving them salaries, training facilities — and weapons.
“I have a gun and handcuffs and a badge,” he said, pulling the badge issued in 2014 out of his bag and admiring his now-extinct curly hair on his police ID. He is still an officer and noted that he was now due for a promotion. “Having won the Olympics,” he said, “they give you another rank.”
Frustrated with his injuries and lackluster results before Tokyo, his superiors in the police connected him late 2015 with Paolo Camossi, a former world champion in the triple jump, and a member of the prison police.
“I arrest them, he puts them in jail,” Mr. Jacobs joked on the track as Mr. Camossi timed his sprints and gave him pointers.
They trained hard, went through many ups and downs and ultimately switched him from the long jump to sprints, and this year, he started setting personal bests. By the time the Tokyo games rolled around, something clicked and Italy had a new hero.
“We’re proud,” said Ennio Rossi, 79, who walked briskly by Mr. Jacobs on the track “to train with the world’s fastest man.”