Noah Lyles, wiping away tears of the past, makes first world championships

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DES MOINES — The scenes most associated with Noah Lyles are of his pre-race introductions (Sunday’s was an ode to Conor McGregor) and post-victory dances (Sunday’s was a mimic of Kevin Durant).

But after Lyles won the U.S. 200m title here, comfortably in 19.78 seconds into a headwind, his thoughts soon turned to a recovery room in Sacramento and a scene from two years ago.

Lyles was supposed to make his big splash on the global stage in 2017.

He came to those USATF Outdoor Championships favored to make the world championships team in the 200m, having run 19.90 seconds in his Diamond League debut six weeks earlier.

But he tore a right hamstring in that 19.90 breakthrough. Lyles stayed in Germany for three weeks for treatment. Lyles flew to California, ran the first round at nationals and won his heat, but he felt pain behind the knee. Later that night, with his coach and agent, Lyles heated, iced and massaged the knee. The next morning, the day of the 200m semifinals and final, he warmed up, and it still wasn’t feeling well.

“We, my agent, my mom, my coach, got together and asked, if we run right now, will it benefit us?” Lyles said two years ago. “We all said no. We would most likely get more injured than what we were dealing with, and it would probably create a season-ending injury.”

Lyles pulled the plug on trying to make his first senior global championship team. He was a year out of high school. With no worlds in 2018, he knew he would have to wait two years for another chance.

Later that night, Lyles watched the 2017 U.S. 200m final from a recovery room at the venue, thinking, “I could have done that. You’re just like, dang, I could have done it, but I’m not in a position to do it.”

“I was in tears that I was unable to run,” he diaried. “But back in the hotel where my mother, brother and uncle were to support me, I made a decision that night to refocus. We agreed it wasn’t meant to be. There is a better plan out there, and I have many more years ahead of me.”

Lyles went undefeated the rest of the season, and through 2018, in the 200m. On July 5, he clocked 19.50 seconds to become the fourth-fastest man in history behind Usain BoltYohan Blake and Michael Johnson.

Lyles “is the only American I’ve seen that I believe can surpass 19.32,” Johnson tweeted Sunday afternoon, noting his American record time from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (which was a world record until Bolt lowered it another .13.). “However he’s probably more appropriately focusing on 19.19!!!”

Maybe that’s to come. But first Lyles crossed the Drake Stadium finish line. He got a pat on the back from runner-up and U.S. 100m champion Christian Coleman.

“I was really surprised on that,” Lyles said of Coleman. Their rivalry was an early season storyline after Lyles edged Coleman in a May 100m, and it came out that the two were more competitors than friends.

“The last time I tried to dab him up, he didn’t want to dab me up,” Lyles said. But on Sunday, Coleman made the first move post-race. “He said congratulations,” Lyles said. “I said, thanks man. You did the double. That’s a hard double to do. Congratulations to you.”

Then Lyles danced, as usual. He knelt and prayed. He turned to the crowd, including his mom, Keisha Caine Bishop, and started shouting. The words were inaudible from the broadcast feed.

“I told my mom, in 2017 we pulled out of the 200m for a reason,” Lyles said. “And today, God told me that reason is now.”

USATF OUTDOORS: Full Results

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Soccer players union pledges support for Olympic protesters

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GENEVA (AP) — Soccer players who defy Olympic rules by making protest gestures at the 2020 Tokyo Games will be supported by their global union.

Freedom of speech on issues like anti-discrimination and gender equality needs to be protected from “a hypocritical rule,” FIFPro general secretary Jonas Baer-Hoffmann said Wednesday at a United Nations labor agency conference.

The International Olympic Committee revived the debate on athlete rights this month by publishing details of protests in venues and medal ceremonies that can lead to disciplinary action, including being sent home from Tokyo.

MORE: IOC publishes protest guidelines

Taking a knee, hand gestures with political meaning — such as raised fist salutes — and snubbing a fellow medalist on the podium are specific types of demonstrations long prohibited by Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter.

“We feel their freedom of expression overrides any other interest that may be in play here,” said Baer-Hoffmann, whose union represents 65,000 professional players.

He praised players who have fueled “these fundamental debates” in soccer by speaking out about racism and equal pay for women.

“They are trailblazers but, on the one hand, they are being welcomed by people to take this forward and make sport appear as a change agent in society,” Baer-Hoffmann said. “And, on the other, now we have a hypocritical rule that says if you do it in our venues, we think this is a sanctionable offense.”

“This is absolutely unacceptable,” the union official said on the sidelines of an International Labor Organization conference about athlete working conditions, also attended by Olympic officials.

The IOC says political neutrality is key to keeping the Olympics a place where athletes worldwide can compete together in peace.

Political opinions can be expressed in Olympic venue interviews and on social media accounts, according to the new guidelines drafted after consultation by the IOC athletes’ commission.

The Tokyo Games soccer tournaments are a 16-team event for men and 12 for women . They kick off on July 22, two days before the opening ceremony, and end on Aug. 8.

The United States will be the women’s favorite if the team advances from a regional qualifying tournament. The team’s co-captain in qualifying is Megan Rapinoe, who has taken a strong stand speaking out on social issues.

MORE: Rapinoe kneels during anthem before U.S. game in 2016

“If the IOC decides to discipline players on this occasion, we will certainly stand by them to defend them,” Baer-Hoffmann said.

Not all of the more than 10,000 athletes in Tokyo, competing in 33 sports, have the same collective protection as soccer players.

“There is a danger you will have two classes of athletes at the Olympics,” said Brendan Schwab, executive director of the World Players Association, citing those who either have or lack resources to defend themselves.

Schwab said the Sport and Rights Alliance, a coalition of trade unions and human rights groups, could offer help. Its members campaigned to release Bahraini soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi from detention in Thailand last year.

Those who took a stand at past Olympics — including American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska at the 1968 Mexico City Games — had “suffered terribly for their protest” before being championed decades later, Schwab said.

“We believe the Olympic movement is strong enough, and in fact it is stronger,” he said, “if it provides a safe space for political protest in the course of the Olympic Games.”

MORE: Smith, Carlos part of U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame class

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Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff set Australian Open duel

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Plenty was going badly for Coco Gauff in the second round of the Australian Open.

The double-faults kept coming Wednesday, nine in all. The deficits, too: First, she dropped the opening set against 74th-ranked Sorana Cirstea.

Then, after forcing a third, Gauff fell behind by a break, ceding 14 of 16 points with a series of mistakes. Later, after getting even at 3-all, Gauff was a mere two points from a loss.

None of that mattered. As she keeps showing, over and over, Gauff is not a typical 15-year-old. Not a typical tennis player, either.

And by getting past Cirstea 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 in a little more than two hours thanks to a more aggressive approach in the late going, she now has set up yet another Grand Slam showdown against Naomi Osaka.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

“I kind of felt the momentum changing,” Gauff said about turning things around against Cirstea. “I knew I had to keep pressing.”

Less than five months after their memorable meeting at the U.S. Open — Osaka won that one in straight sets, then consoled a crying Gauff on court and encouraged her to address the spectators — the two will face each other again. Like that time, Osaka is the major’s reigning champion and Gauff is making her debut at the tournament.

“I think I’ll be less nervous this time,” said Gauff, who eliminated seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams in the first round Monday. “I think I’m more confident this time around.”

As for what sticks with her about the post-match comforting Osaka offered in New York, Gauff said: “If I had a child or something, that’s something I would want my child to see. It just shows what being a competitor really is. You might hate the person on the court, but off the court you love them — not really, like, ‘hate,’ but you want to win. Sometimes when we’re on the court, we say things we don’t mean because we have that mentality. When it’s all said and done, we still look at each other with respect.”

Other winners included Serena Williams — 6-2, 6-3 against Tamara Zidansek in a match that finished with the Rod Laver Arena retractable roof closed because of rain — No. 1 Ash Barty, 2018 Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki and two-time major champion Petra Kvitova, the runner-up to Osaka in Australia a year ago.

In the last featured match of the night, No. 10 Madison Keys defeated Arantxa Rus 7-6 (7-3), 6-2.

Defending men’s champion Novak Djokovic required all of 95 minutes to breeze past Japanese wild-card entry Tatsuma Ito 6-1, 6-4, 6-2, while Roger Federer swept Filip Krajinovic 6-1, 6-4, 6-1.

Gauff was not at her very best on a windy afternoon against Cirstea but managed to figure her way out of trouble repeatedly. Gauff demonstrated plenty of grit, yes, and also enthusiasm, pumping herself up by shaking a fist and yelling, “Come on!” after most of her successful points down the stretch.

All the while, Gauff was supported by a Melbourne Arena crowd that chanted, “Let’s go, Coco! Let’s go!”

Her father, Corey, was animated in the stands, too, except when he was squeezing his eyes shut at critical moments.

There were several of those for his precocious daughter, who was ranked only 313th last year when she became the youngest player in history to qualify for Wimbledon, then wound up beating Williams there en route to the fourth round.

It is a measure of her came-so-soon stardom that Gauff was playing at Melbourne Park’s third-largest stadium Wednesday, even though this was a matchup between a pair of players ranked outside the top 60 and with one career Grand Slam quarterfinal between them, more than a decade ago (Cirstea made it that far at the 2009 French Open).

Indeed, every Grand Slam singles match — “every” being a relative term, of course, because this was No. 9 — of the 67th-ranked Gauff’s nascent career has been placed on a show court.

This was the first main draw match at a major for Gauff in which she held a better ranking than her opponent.

Didn’t seem that way at the outset: Gauff dropped the first set. After forcing things to a third, she trailed 3-0. After making it 3-3, Gauff needed to get through one more gut-check: Twice, she was two points from departing.

But the American teenager broke in the next-to-last game, then held to win.

How did Gauff get through this test?

“Just my will to win,” she said. “My parents, they always told me I can come back, no matter what the score is.”

Osaka worked through some frustrations Wednesday by grabbing her racket with both hands and chucking it to the ground, tossing away a tennis ball and kicking the racket along the court, to boot.

Then she plopped herself down on her sideline seat and draped a towel over her head. Soon, she was gathering herself and defeating Zheng Saisai 6-2, 6-4.

“I mean, my racket just magically flew out of my hand. I couldn’t control it,” Osaka said with a mischievous smile. “I think that’s how I dealt with my frustration. It was a bit childish. I just want to play one match without throwing my racket or kicking it. That’s all I want.”

Perhaps because her news conference took place while Gauff and Cirstea were still playing, Osaka deflected a question seeking some sort of lookahead to the third round, saying simply she would go watch the end of that match.

MORE: Another top U.S. tennis player cools on Olympics

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