Briana Williams

Noah Lyles, Christian Coleman
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U.S. track and field revival set for first post-Usain Bolt Olympics

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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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Donavan Brazier, after another U.S. 800m record, looks to David Rudisha

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NEW YORK — Donavan Brazier lowered the U.S. indoor 800m record again at the Millrose Games, but he’s hoping later this year to achieve a career first: line up in a race with David Rudisha.

Brazier, who won the world outdoor title in 2019 to stamp himself as Tokyo Olympic favorite, clocked 1:44.22 at the Armory in New York City on Saturday. He previously lowered a 26-year-old American record at last year’s Millrose Games, when he ran 1:44.41.

“When I saw the clock going 1:42, 1:43, I was like, oh, I have a chance,” Brazier said Saturday. “To get it by point-two seconds, there’s really not much room for error there.”

Brazier wasn’t the only American record-breaker Saturday. Ajee Wilson lowered her national 800m record from 1:58.60 to 1:58.29. Elle Purrier took down Mary Slaney‘s 37-year-old U.S. indoor mile record, clocking 4:16.85, the world’s second-fastest time in history.

Full Millrose Games results are here.

The indoor season wraps up with the USA Track and Field Indoor Championships in Albuquerque next weekend, airing on NBC Sports. The world indoor championships, traditionally in early March, were postponed due to the coronavirus in host nation China.

Indoor success is fantastic, but in an Olympic year the focus is outdoors. Last Oct. 1, Brazier broke a 34-year-old American outdoor record to become the first U.S. man or woman to win a world 800m title.

It came in the absence of Rudisha, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic champion and world-record holder who hasn’t competed since 2017, partly due to injury. Rudisha’s 2012 Olympic title, when he set the outdoor world record of 1:40.91, is considered by many the greatest race in the sport’s history as he carried the rest of the field to the fastest times in history for each placement.

Brazier, who was 15 in 2012, said he couldn’t remember watching that final live. But he said he’s watched it dozens of times on replay, more than any other race.

“It’s a work of art,” Brazier said. “He was probably in sub-1:40 shape.”

Brazier can’t fathom running as fast as Rudisha, whose world record is 1.43 seconds faster than Brazier’s American record. But he’s carried a simple mindset since being eliminated in the first round of the 2016 Olympic trials, when he was ranked third in the world for the season as a college freshman.

“If I can work as hard as I was the year before, I’ll just naturally get faster,” said Brazier, who last year ran the fastest indoor 600m in history, in addition to breaking the U.S. indoor and outdoor 800m records.

The success puts pressure on Brazier to become the first American to win an Olympic 800m title since Dave Wottle did so wearing a hat in Munich in 1972.

“I think the target’s on my back just because I won 2019, but it’s definitely not as big of a target as [Rudisha] had on his back post-2012,” Brazier said. “I’m not thinking that I’m like this David Rudisha takeover because I’m not really damn near close to his times, but I think, for now, I’ve got that small target on my back. I guess I’m just trying to make it as big as possible.”

Rudisha, if he returns to racing this year, looks questionable to defend his Olympic gold medals in Tokyo. Five of the nine fastest men in the world last year were Kenyans, and only three can go to the Games.

“He’s a hell of a racer,” Brazier said. “I don’t know how fast he’s going to be if he comes back.”

In other events Saturday, nine-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix took sixth in a 60m won by American Javianne Oliver in 7.13. Felix’s time — 7.32 seconds in an off-event for her — was .03 faster than she ran last Saturday.

Felix is bidding to race the 200m and 400m at June’s Olympic trials, where her better chance is in the 400m, where at least six women will make the Olympic team due to the 4x400m relays.

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Briana Williams, Jamaican sprint phenom, withdraws from world championships

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Briana Williams, a 17-year-old Jamaican sprint phenom, withdrew from the world championships the day before the women’s 100m begins, despite being cleared of a potential ban for a positive drug test.

Williams posted on social media that she had not flown to Doha before a Jamaican panel decided not to punish her over a positive test from June. The panel reportedly ruled that she was not at fault for a guardian giving her a tablet that caused the positive.

Last month, Williams’ attorney said the sprinter took a legal cold medication and listed it on her doping control form. Via lab tests, tablets were found to contain a banned diuretic that was not listed among its ingredients.

“Considering the long trip to Doha and that the team has already started training for the relays. I am just relieved and thankful after what has been a very emotional summer,” was posted on her social media Friday. “I would like to once again express my gratitude to everyone right across Jamaica who reached out to show support.”

Williams ran the fastest 100m in history for an under-18 woman at the Jamaican Championships on June 21, taking third in 10.94 seconds with a fever behind the last two Olympic champions, Elaine Thompson and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. She ranks sixth in the world this year.

Thompson, Fraser-Pryce and Brit Dina Asher-Smith are the three fastest women in the field at worlds.

MORE: World Track and Field Championships TV Schedule

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