An exclusive chat with Noah Lyles about life on and off the track after he won three gold medals in Budapest
You suspect Noah Lyles knew exactly what he was doing. He had just become the fifth man in history to complete the 100m and 200m sprint double at a World Championships, and decided to air some opinions.
Asked – as he often is – about what could be done to improve the sport he is bending to his will, he decided to turn the focus in another direction. The man who was born in Florida should be a huge star in America, yet still his profile is dwarfed by those who make their living through American football, baseball or the sport Lyles singled out. Basketball.
“What hurts me the most is I have to watch the NBA finals and they have world champion on their heads,” Lyles said. “World champion of what? The United States?
“Don’t get me wrong – I love the US, at times – but that ain’t the world.”
It is inarguable that the 26-year-old is at the heart of a truly global sport. In his gold medal-winning exploits in Budapest he saw off opponents from Britain to Botswana, Canada to the Czech Republic.
Much of the sporting public in America reacted to the comments with outrage and anger – also largely missing the point entirely – filling broadcast schedules with opinions about why Lyles was wrong. Yet, with his words, he placed athletics into the spotlight and made it the centre of attention. And that is his mission.
Not only does Lyles know how to win, he is also becoming increasingly adept at knowing how to play the game away from the track. He regularly speaks of “wanting to transcend” the sport and being more than “track famous”. To that end, he can be found at fashion shows, collaborating with designers, artists and musicians, as well as starring in his own docuseries which is designed to peek behind the scenes of the sprinting world. ω
In Budapest, he was also followed closely by the Netflix cameras. Ahead of next year’s Paris Olympics, the streaming platform will be screening a series which focuses on the quickest humans on the planet. The hope is that it can have a similar effect to the Drive to Survive project that did so much to raise the profile of Formula One.
“They weren’t talking about me at the beginning of that documentary,” joked Lyles. “As soon as I won [at the Diamond League] in Paris, they got buddy, buddy real quick!
“I think it went from being a docu-series about the fastest people and then it turned into a docuseries about me.”
When AW sat down with Lyles in Budapest, we were certainly not alone. Publicists sitting in on an interview is nothing new, but the fact that two cameras were also capturing every moment provided a further illustration of the level of attention he is now living with.
The fact he is coping with it, and indeed inviting it in, is highly impressive in itself.
Lyles has openly discussed his past struggles with Attention Deficit Disorder, dyslexia and depression but, much like his performances on the track, he currently feels in a position of strength.
“There’s no way that I would be able to have this camera dead in my face if I wasn’t in a good space right now,” he says. “I had somebody ask me in the press conference ‘Is it hard to do this?’. No. This is what I dreamed of. This is what I’ve been waiting for. This is what I wanted to happen.”
Lyles will be front and centre, delivering his message again at this month’s Diamond League Final in Eugene – the first time the event will be staged on US soil and the stage upon which he won his second 200m world title last summer.
He is smart enough to know that none of that attention comes without winning titles in the first place. The priority is cementing his position at the pinnacle of the day job and that part of the plan is most definitely progressing nicely. The man who wants to be “an influencer” is confident he is doing just that in his sport.
“Right now, we’re in the dynasty of the 200m and I felt that I brought that upon us,” he says.
“I remember watching the 2017 World Championships and [Ramil] Guliyev won it in 20.09. I was like ‘yeah, never again’.
“If I’m at a World Championships, the winning time is going to be 19 seconds. In every Diamond League I show up to, I’m going to win with 19 seconds. And I don’t think I’ve yet to fail that. Because of that, I feel that it’s pushed everybody else along in growing this event.
“Of course, there was the time of the 100m, which I feel was Usain Bolt and Michael Johnson had the time of the 400m, whereas right now it’s the time of the 200m.”
No-one has recorded more legal 200m times of under 20 seconds than Lyles. He has 38 of those performances to his name. Usain Bolt previously held the record with 34.
“Consistency wins medals. Consistency creates legacies,” he says. “You can look at Bolt’s career and, yes, it’s very nice to say that he has the world record but it’s even cooler for him to say that he has eight Olympic gold medals. That’s the epitome of consistency. Nobody else in the history of the sport has been able to do that.
“So every time that I go into a race and I’m able to say I’m going to be running 19 is another moment of consistency and more proof that I’m healthy, that I’m fast, that I’m constantly moving in the right direction.”
Just attempting the 100m and 200m double (Lyles was at the heart of USA’s 4x100m relay gold medal winning team too) is a feat of sprinting endurance. When asked to explain just how gruelling a challenge it was this time around, though, the answer is revealing.
“To be honest, this is the best I’ve ever felt in my life. I don’t feel like I’m giving all that much,” he says. “Over the years, I’ve tried to go after it and I’ve had to pull out for maybe mental health reasons, or I just didn’t feel I was ready, or I felt that I was risking losing the 200m.
“But, this year, I have such a stronghold on the 200m that I know that I can have time to go and perfect the 100m, which is something that I have to do. If I want to make the 200m faster, I have to get faster at the 100m. So why would I just shoot for the sky when I can aim for the stars in that event?”
He adds: “The 200m is my home. It’s where I live. I eat, sleep and breathe the 200m. I dream about the 200m. I know that turn, I know that straightaway, I know every 10-metre increment, I know where people get stuck at, I know where people try to speed up at.
“I know how people think they should run it and I know how to run it and that’s what makes me so excited about it – because I know it so well. Any time that I get to make it faster, It’s like ‘wow, it’s a whole new race’.”
The big thing missing from Lyles’ sprinting CV now is an Olympic gold. The closest he has come was the 200m bronze from Tokyo, which was the source of much disappointment. With emerging talents such as 19-year-old American Erriyon Knighton and 20-year-old Letsile Tebogo of Botswana providing an ever more potent threat, achieving that ambition is going to be no easy feat, either.
Yet, as he surveys the current landscape, Lyles can see his influence having taken effect in other ways.
“I knew that somebody was going to ask: ‘What do you think of the new guy [coming through]?’ And instead of that being me, it’s now somebody else. I knew that that day would come and, to be honest, it’s kind of exciting because when I got to this point, I wanted to be able to say that I started a trend of athletes going straight pro, right out of World Juniors, because that hadn’t been done before [Lyles and his brother Josephus turned professional as teenagers in 2016].
“Me and my brother started that and, now that I look around, and I look at all these amazing talented young people… you know, we created something, and whether they saw me do it, or they got the idea because they knew they could do it because it’s been done before now that makes me excited.
“But that doesn’t mean I’m gonna let up anymore. I ain’t getting to the top to be pulled down, now!”
» This feature first appeared in the September issue of AW magazine, which you can read here
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