U.S. track and field revival set for first post-Usain Bolt Olympics

Noah Lyles, Christian Coleman
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Six months ago at the world track and field championships, the U.S. showed its cards for the Tokyo Olympics, what will be the first Games in the post-Usain Bolt era.

A bevy of 20-somethings (and a few in their 30s with remarkable stories) tied the record for most gold medals at a single worlds (14). Americans began filling the void left by the retirement of the biggest star in the sport’s history.

Then came the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on Feb. 29 in Atlanta. The men’s and women’s races exceeded expectations for excitement. They produced an unpredictable first six members of the U.S. Olympic track and field team.

Both world championships and those trials whet the appetite for what was to come — a spring marathon season with a duel between the two fastest men in history, the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials at a rebuilt Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., and the Tokyo Games themselves.

The coronavirus pandemic postponed those plans. Hopefully, Eliud Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele will face off at a London Marathon rescheduled for Oct. 4. Hayward Field’s grand reopening must wait, too. All of those athletes who starred at the world championships — and the marathon trials — saw their Olympic dreams deferred to 2021.

How will this change the sport’s major storylines? We may have to wait a year to find out.

For Ato Boldon, the NBC Olympic track and field analyst, the most mouth-watering showdowns for track trials were to be the men’s 200m and the women’s 400m hurdles.

Christian Coleman, the world 100m champion, and Noah Lyles, the world 200m champion, both said in 2019 that they planned to race the 100m and 200m at trials, eyeing the Bolt feat of sweeping the sprints at the Olympics. The 200m typically comes after the 100m at trials and is a 20-second test of endurance after racing five previous times at the meet.

The last time Dalilah Muhammad and Sydney McLaughlin faced off in a 400m hurdles, it produced the first- and third-fastest times in history. Muhammad, the Rio Olympic champion, lowered the world record at nationals and worlds last year.

“Sydney is ready to ascend to the throne,” Boldon said of McLaughlin, who in Rio became the youngest U.S. Olympic track and field competitor in 44 years, “and Dalilah Muhammad is like nope, not yet.”

The next year could have greater impact for other established champions.

Start with Allyson Felix, a 34-year-old bidding for her fifth Olympics and to add to her collection of nine medals, tied for the most among female track and field athletes. Felix came back last year from a life-threatening childbirth to make her ninth world championships and break her tie with Usain Bolt for the most world titles.

Felix yearns to compete in Tokyo in an individual event, which will be difficult. Last year, she made worlds strictly in the relays after placing sixth in the 400m at nationals in her first meet as a mom. The top three at trials qualify individually.

Boldon believes the extra year will benefit Felix, who come July 2021 will be older than any previous female U.S. Olympic track and field medalist. Boldon pointed to Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who eased back from childbirth. In Fraser-Pryce’s second season back last year, she won the world 100m title.

“It gives her more time to train and sort of get back to the Allyson we all know and love,” Boldon said.

South African Wayde van Niekerk is another interesting case. In Rio, he broke Michael Johnson‘s 17-year-old world record in the 400m, clocking 43.03 seconds from lane eight. Van Niekerk scantly raced since tearing an ACL and a meniscus in a celebrity tag rugby match on Oct. 7, 2017.

“The more time he has to recover from his time off and his injury, I think the better,” Boldon said. “I haven’t seen anything yet that convinces me that Wayde van Niekerk is going to be a medal threat in 2021.”

Then there are the young, promising athletes who, with an extra year of training, could break through in 2021. Boldon knows this well. He coaches one of them.

Jamaican Briana Williams has been billed as an heir apparent in the women’s sprints for years and threw down the times to back it up. The Tokyo Games would be her first senior global championships.

“Obviously, I would have loved to go at things as normal and be ready in June and July to face the best in the world,” Boldon said, “but I look at this, and I go, yeah, she gets one more year to mature, to grow in confidence. I like my chances with my 18-year-old Briana.”

The overall story of 2021 could be the U.S. men.

At worlds, they won every flat race from 100m through 800m, plus both relays, except for the 400m. They may have won the 400m, too, if Michael Norman (fastest in the world in 2019) was healthy. Once in Olympic history has one nation swept the men’s 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and both relays — the U.S. at the 1956 Melbourne Games.

The current American surge comes two Olympics after the U.S. was shut out of gold medals in those six events. Those sprinters earned one silver and one bronze overall in London. With Bolt now focused on fatherhood, the time is ripe.

“That’s how the pendulum swings sometimes,” Boldon said. “London 2012, not only did they not win any of those events, they barely factored. Then you fast forward two Olympics, and now they have a chance to absolutely not just win. In some events we’re talking about a possible sweep.”

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South Korea’s first gold medalist of 2018 PyeongChang Olympics to compete for China

Lim Hyo-Jun
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Lim Hyo-Jun, a short track speed skater who won South Korea’s first gold medal of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, has been cleared to skate for China and was reportedly named to the national team Monday.

Lim, who won the 1500m on the first day of medal competition at the PyeongChang Games, began the process of switching to China after a June 2019 incident where he pulled down a teammate’s trousers, leaving him standing, exposed, in front of female teammates.

Lim, the 2019 World overall champion, was banned from the team for a year and later found guilty of sexual harassment before the verdict was overturned on appeal.

It was reported in March 2021 that Lim was in the process of trying to gain Chinese nationality to compete at the Beijing Winter Olympics, but Lim was not cleared to switch by the International Skating Union until this July. His Chinese name is Lin Xiaojun.

Another star South Korean skater, triple 2006 Olympic gold medalist Ahn Hyun-Soo, switched to Russia after not making the 2010 Olympic team. He then won three golds for the host nation as Viktor Ahn at the 2014 Sochi Games.

China’s national team for the upcoming season reportedly does not include veterans Wu Dajing, the nation’s lone gold medalist across all sports at the 2018 Olympics, and Fan Kexin, a three-time Olympic medalist.

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Brigid Kosgei, world record holder, to miss London Marathon

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World record holder Brigid Kosgei withdrew before Sunday’s London Marathon due to a right hamstring injury that has bothered her for the last month.

“My training has been up and down and not the way I would like to prepare to be in top condition,” was posted on Kosgei’s social media. “We’ve decided it’s best I withdraw from this year’s race and get further treatment on my injuries in order to enter 2023 stronger than ever.”

Kosgei, a 28-year-old Kenyan mother of twins, shattered the world record by 81 seconds at the 2019 Chicago Marathon. She clocked 2:14:04 to smash Brit Paula Radcliffe‘s record from 2003.

Since, Kosgei won the 2020 London Marathon, took silver at the Tokyo Olympics, placed fourth at the 2021 London Marathon and won this past March’s Tokyo Marathon in what was then the third-fastest time in history (2:16:02).

Ethiopian Tigist Assefa moved into the top three by winning the Berlin Marathon last Sunday in 2:15:37.

The London Marathon women’s field includes Kenyan Joyciline Jepkosgei, a winner in New York City (2019) and London (2021), and Yalemzerf Yehualaw, who was the Ethiopian record holder until Assefa won in Berlin.

The men’s field is headlined by Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, the second-fastest male marathoner in history, and Brit Mo Farah, a four-time Olympic champion on the track.

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