American star lands sprint double with 200m victory, then uses NBA example to outline why he fears his sport is falling off the pace
Noah Lyles became the fifth male athlete in history to complete the sprint double at the World Championships, then insisted the sport’s stars are not properly being “presented to the world”.
The American, who is the first man since Usain Bolt eight years ago to capture both the world 100m and 200m gold medals at the same championships, said “the bar is low” when asked about how he wants to raise athletics’ profile around the globe.
With his own docuseries on air and the Netflix cameras following his every move ahead of their sprint project which will air next year, Lyles didn’t hold back on the subject of how track and field is viewed back in his home country.
Despite what he has achieved, the man who clocked 19.52 (-0.2) to hold off fellow countryman Erriyon Knighton (19.75), Botswana’s Letsile Tebogo (19.81) and British record-holder Zharnel Hughes (20.02) will earn a fraction of the money and have a smaller public profile in the US than the big names in the NFL or, as he pointed out, the NBA.
“The thing that hurts me the most is that I have to watch the NBA finals and they have world champion on their heads. World champion of what?” asked the 26-year-old. “I love the US – at times – but that ain’t the world! We are the world.
“We have almost every country out here fighting, thriving putting on a flag to show that they are representative. There are no flags in the NBA.
“We’ve got to do more. We’ve got to be presented to the world. I love the track community, but we can only do so much within our own bubble. There’s a whole world out there.”
The medals will help Lyles to realise his dream of bringing a greater audience to what he and his fellow athletes do. Without them, as he puts it: “Who’s going to want to pay attention to you?”. These World Championships have helped to grow his collection and, he says, offer a route towards fashion, towards music, connection and collaboration with the kind of people that bring with them a greater spotlight.
But Lyles added that he feels there are ways in which athletics could also better be helping itself and calling on the help of some of its most stellar names. Few people have ever done more to draw the eyes of the world towards sprinting than Bolt, but he has not been seen at a World Championships since his retirement in London six years ago, for example.
“As I look around this World Championships, I don’t see Bolt, I don’t see Asafa [Powell]. I don’t see Yohan [Blake] and he’s still running! Where are all these great champions?” said Lyles.
“We look at them, as we’re walking through the tunnel [being presented to the crowd], at all of these previous world champions. Why are they not here?”
Earlier this week there had been a gathering of 22 past world champions, Olympic champions and record-breakers in Budapest, but Lyles’ point was still an entirely valid one.
And, while the star names he mentioned might not have been there to see it in person, the current generation served up a thrilling finale to day seven of these championships.
Lyles lived up to his status as favourite and, in truth, he is currently a class apart from his rivals over his favourite distance. Having won the 100m was “fun”, he said. With the 200m, it’s personal.
Running in lane six, he had the fourth-fastest reaction time but was ahead when the field sped through the halfway mark in 10.26, with Knighton fractionally behind, followed by last year’s silver medallist Kenny Bednarek, Tebogo and Hughes.
It was Bednarek who slowed the most as he fell out of medal contention to fifth, while Hughes would have had to break his national record of 19.73 to get on to the podium and add to his 100m bronze.
Olympic champion Andre de Grasse was sixth in 20.14, with Jamaican Andrew Hudson, who had been progressed to the final following the golf buggy crash which resulted in him having shards of glass in his eye and running the semi-finals with blurred vision, was eighth in 20.40.
Lyles had been sitting close to Hudson when the incident occurred, but said he felt no ill-effects from the collision. There was a further parallel to be drawn with Bolt given that, after completing his 2015 double in Beijing, the Jamaican was run over by cameraman on a Segway.
Transport issues were not at the forefront of the current world 200m champion’s mind, though.
“The 200m is personal to me,” said the now three-time winner. “This is where I stay, this is where I’ve learned how to race. After what happened in Tokyo [winning Olympic bronze], I don’t believe in deserving to win any more. You have to take the win.”
For Knighton, this was an upgrade on the 19-year-old’s bronze from last year, while 20-year-old Tebogo impressively added to his 100m silver in what has been his first World Championships.
(WR: 30.81 Wayde van Niekerk; UK rec: 31.56 Dougie Walker).
— AW (@AthleticsWeekly) August 25, 2023
Hughes’ ambition of a second medal was narrowly thwarted, however.
“I gave it my best so that’s not something to be disappointed about,” said the Briton. “Obviously I wanted to be on the podium, but I am still happy. You saw how close I was. I think if I was in a better lane I would have been on that podium.
“I had to work the bend twice as hard as those guys up there because they have little bend to run I have all the bend to run so I needed to make up the stagger as quickly as I can and save something for the home straight and I think I did that, but those guys were too far ahead for me to catch.”
The sprinters’ work is not yet done, though. The 4x100m relays await on Saturday evening and Lyles will, once again, be intent on getting his message across with another piece of gold around his neck.
» Subscribe to AW magazine here