BUDAPEST – The departure of Usain Bolt into his well-deserved retirement in 2017 left a gaping hole at the heart of track and field.
The Jamaican sprinter left having won 11 world and eight Olympic golds, but now, six years later, it looks as if a rightful successor has emerged: Noah Lyles.
The American, excitable and increasingly outspoken, is hardly a new face on the blocks — the 26-year-old is currently is in his eighth year as a professional having signed with Adidas the year before Bolt retired.
But after clinching a memorable 100m/200m double plus gold after anchoring the US team to glory in the 4x100m relay at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Lyles looks ready to bring track back into the wider public consciousness.
“I wanted to show I am different. I came out and showed it. I am double champion,” Lyles said.
“Usain Bolt has done it and him saying to me that he sees what I am doing and he respects it, it is amazing.”
Lyles, who became just the fifth sprinter to claim a world sprint double, a feat last claimed by Bolt in 2015, added: “I am ready to transcend the sport.
“I am the guy who wants to move past being track-famous. I want people to see me on the track, but in GQ and my docu-series, and realise I’m a cool guy too.
“Medals are the first step because then people pay attention to you.
“Then you can go into different directions: fashion, music. You can start collaborating with other people, artists and the world.”
– Star of the screen –
It might be the kind of pep talk track and field needs in an ever-expanding world of entertainment options.
Lyles is also being filmed for an NBC Sports documentary and will also feature in a Netflix series on the 100m currently in production.
Although it is difficult to quantify potential market reaction or even increased public participation, there can be no denying that the Netflix series on Formula One and tennis reflected those sports in a way that made them interesting and seemingly more accessible.
While Lyles is revelling in the added attention, he has also spoken out against track and field’s inability to hit the mainstream.
“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,” he said, lining up the NBA in his crosshairs.
“You know the thing that hurts me most? I have to watch the NBA finals and they have world champion on their heads. World champion of what? The United States?
“Don’t get me wrong. I love the US, at times. But that isn’t the world!”
Lyles added: “We have almost every country out here fighting, thriving and putting on a flag to show that they are represented. There are no flags in the NBA.”
The question now is whether Lyles will be able to continue his fine form into next year’s Paris Olympics, the ultimate global championships for the American spectator.
He won bronze in the 200m at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics, but to continue garnering attention, in his own words, Lyles needs to keep winning medals.
That was the go-to strength of Bolt: his ability to dominate and win multiple gold medals at global championships.
Lyles could not have done more in Budapest after bagging treble gold.
“It’s sensational, amazing. You can’t do better. It’s out of control!”
World Athletics president Sebastian Coe described Lyles and his teammate Sha’Carri Richardson, who won a stunning women’s 100m gold in Budapest, as “absolute rock stars”, saying: “They both have come through in the most powerful way.”
He added: “I’ve been optimistic for some years now. We were sitting here three or four years ago, and occasionally I got the question ‘what are you all going to do when Usain Bolt leaves the scene?’
“Usain is Usain,” Coe said, but he urged his audience to be excited about the “extraordinary nature of that range of talent that’s now coming through both in track and field”.
– by Luke Phillips