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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