Ato Boldon
NBC

Ato Boldon reflects on track and field season breakouts, looks to 2019

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Track and field was supposed to suffer in 2018. Usain Bolt‘s first year in retirement. No Olympics or world outdoor championships. Even the other established stars — Allyson FelixJustin GatlinWayde van Niekerk — scarcely competed or missed the season altogether due to injury. 

In their absence, new blood rejuvenated the sport in the middle of the Olympic cycle. Christian ColemanNoah Lyles and Michael Norman kept U.S. men’s sprinting to the top. The 400m and 400m hurdles will offer some of the most anticipated head-to-heads in 2019, with at least one world-record watch.

NBC Sports analyst Ato Boldon recapped the season in the sprints and looked ahead to 2019 in a Q&A [editor’s additions in brackets] …

OlympicTalk: Overall thoughts on the year, the first post-Bolt and without a major championship?

Boldon: I never bought the whole argument that Bolt’s going to leave this huge void athletically. I thought he would leave a void personality-wise, and I think maybe that has been nullified a little bit with the likes of [Qatar’s] Abderrahman Samba [second-fastest 400m hurdler of all time in just his second season in the event] and Noah Lyles and Sydney McLaughlin. It turned out to be a pretty good year.

The 400m went through a huge change with the addition of Michael Norman to the mix. In the women’s 400m, I finally got the sub-49 I’ve been waiting for since Sanya Richards-Ross [in 2009]. I’m really excited to see the next worlds, Olympics, worlds cycle [2019, 2020, 2021] because there’s just so much young talent. There are a bunch of world records coming.

OlympicTalk: Who is the man in the sprints right now?

Boldon: I don’t know if that’s for sure yet. It could be Christian Coleman. We saw that last year when he ran 9.82. That last race he ran to win the Diamond League [a 9.79, factoring in conditions arguably the best 100m ever outside the Bolt era], to end the season with that sort of statement, to say I’ve gone to a place none of you guys have ever been, makes him the man unless I see differently.

OlympicTalk: Who is more likely to be challenged in 2019 – Coleman in the 100m or Lyles in the 200m?

Boldon: Coleman, though Lyles is going to have better competition next year [than in 2018]. Michael Norman is going to go back to practice and say, “Nobody understands how good I can be at the 200m. That’s probably my better event.” [though Norman ran the world’s fastest 400m of 2018 and broke the indoor 400m world record]

Norman has a natural rivalry with Lyles [they were 2016 Olympic Trials breakouts, finishing fourth and fifth in the 200m as 18-year-olds]. He did not take that loss to Lyles [in the 200m in Lausanne] as well as some people may think.

OlympicTalk: We barely saw Allyson Felix compete this year. What do you see from her?

Boldon: I think she felt like she had some unfinished business after the Olympics [edged for 400m gold]. The problem is that when you’re Allyson Felix, nothing less than gold is going to be the goal. And now her path to gold is harder than it has ever been in her career in any event.

At age 33 next year, it looks like she will have to run a time that she’s never run to beat Shaunae Miller-Uibo, who just ran 48.9 [at age 24], and Salwa Eid Naser, who just ran 49 flat [at age 20]. I don’t see any way Allyson Felix [personal best 49.26] wins another 400m world title or Olympic title.

OlympicTalk: Would her chances be better if she focused on the 200m?

Boldon: The 200m is not an option for her anymore. As you get older, the speed goes [away] first. She doesn’t have 21.6 speed anymore. And guess what, Shaunae Miller-Uibo is still going to be in that event. You have the Olympic champion, Elaine Thompson, if she can overcome the Achilles injury. Allyson’s chance might be slightly better in the 200m, but I think it’s like zero [in the 400m] versus a one.

OlympicTalk: Wayde van Niekerk will go more than a year between races, possibly as much as 18 months, after meniscus and ACL tears last fall. How concerned are you about him getting back to his best?

Boldon: Any time you’re the world-record holder, the best in the history of the event, there’s concern. But it’s a knee, and people recover from knees a lot better than other things. On a one-to-10 scale of being concerned, I’m probably about a four. It’s on the lower side. He’s going to be back. He’s young enough [26]. I expect him to be back if not at his best, then very close.

OlympicTalk: Single best performance of 2018?

Boldon: Samba in the 400m hurdles, that he ran 46.98 [second only to Kevin Young’s world record at the 1992 Olympics] with nobody around him. When him and Rai Benjamin [who won NCAAs in 47.02] hook up next year, I want to be there. Samba has run less than 20 races in that event in his career. The guy has basically rewritten what a great season is in that event with very little experience.

OlympicTalk: After all the breakouts in the last year, name somebody who will in the next year.

Boldon: There’s a young lady from the University of Georgia in the 400m. Her name is Lynna Irby. She ran 49.8 to win the NCAAs as a freshman, taking down Kendall Ellis. She also ran a really fast 200m [22.25, third fastest American this year]. I think she’s the next American star in the 200m and 400m. I love everything about her, how she competes, her form.

OlympicTalk: Justin Gatlin didn’t race much this year but has a bye into the world championships as defending 100m gold medalist. Can he contend with Coleman and Lyles?

Boldon: He did the right thing this year. When you’re an old gunslinger [Gatlin is 36], you only have so many shots left. You don’t shoot them in a year where you don’t have a world championships. I don’t know that Gatlin’s going to beat Coleman if Coleman stays healthy, but he can still be a factor, no question about it.

OlympicTalk: Does Coleman break the American record in the 100m next year [9.69]?

Boldon: Yes.

OlympicTalk: How fast does Lyles go in the 200m next year?

Boldon: 19.5 [after running in the 19.6s four times this year].

OlympicTalk: Do Coleman and Lyles each double up in the 100m and 200m in 2019?

Boldon: You’re going to see Coleman and Lyles running the 100m and the 200m next year at the world championships trials.

Lyles can be Olympic champion and world champion in the next three years if they fix his start [in the 100m]. He’s way better in the last 50 than Coleman. It could be that if Lyles showed up next year with a proper drive phase and better start mechanics, that Lyles can be a 100m-200m threat just like everybody else.

Everybody forgot that Coleman is a 19.8 performer [in the 200m from 2017]. I think he’s actually faster than that. His mechanics issues come late in the race.

OlympicTalk: What races are you looking forward to most next year?

Boldon: The matchup between Shaunae Miller-Uibo and Salwa Eid Naser in the women’s 400m and the 400m hurdles between Rai Benjamin and Abderrahman Samba.

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Wayde van Niekerk to miss all of 2018

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Wayde van Niekerk, the Olympic and world 400m champion and world-record holder, will not race in 2018 as he continues to work his way back from October meniscus and ACL tears.

“There’s no way he’s going to compete this year,” Van Niekerk’s agent said Wednesday, confirming a Daily Mail report. “His rehab is going great. He’s in really good shape. The injury is healed properly and all that, but between the coach and himself, we’re not going to let him race this year. There’s no major championships this year or anything.”

Van Niekerk is expected to return to normal training on the track in July, his agent said.

This is the one year in the four-year Olympic cycle without a world outdoor championships or Olympic Games. Van Niekerk has already missed one of the biggest competitions of 2018, last month’s Commonwealth Games. The Diamond League regular season will be past the midway point once Van Niekerk returns to training, so sitting out the rest of the year is hardly a surprise.

Van Niekerk, who last raced Aug. 10, suffered the knee injuries in a celebrity tag rugby match on Oct. 7 and underwent surgery.

“His coach wasn’t happy about that [it happening at a tag rugby match],” Van Niekerk’s agent said then. Van Niekerk is famously coached by Ans Botha, a great-grandmother.

Before the injury, Van Niekerk was hoping to race both the 100m and 200m at the Commonwealth Games after attempting a 200m-400m double at the 2017 World Championships (earning gold in the 400m and silver in the 200m).

Van Niekerk is the only man in history to run sub-44 for the 400m, sub-20 for the 200m and sub-10 for the 100m.

He was well off his best times at 2017 Worlds, winning the 400m in 43.98 seconds, albeit decelerating near the finish with the race easily won. In Rio, Van Niekerk clocked the world record 43.03.

And in the 200m, Van Niekerk was overtaken by Turkey’s Ramil Guliyev in the final straightaway, losing by .02. He recorded 20.11, well off the 19.84 he ran two months earlier, albeit Van Niekerk could have been significantly slowed by exhaustion at worlds.

Van Niekerk, who turns 26 on July 15, may still have time on his side. Michael Johnson‘s fastest 400m time came at nearly age 32.

In Van Niekerk’s absence, a new star may be emerging. Steven Gardiner of the Bahamas ran 43.87 on May 4, the second-fastest time ever that early in a year. Gardiner then clocked 43.99 last Saturday, becoming the first man to break 44 seconds twice in a season before June.

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MORE: Niekerk sees different double in his future, or none at all

Barshim, Thiam earn IAAF top honors; Bolt earn’s president’s award

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Neither Mo Farah nor Wayde van Niekerk was the IAAF’s world athlete of the year for 2017. Instead, that honor went to Mutaz Barshim of Qatar.

Bolt was honored instead with the President’s Award, which “recognizes and honors great service to athletics.”

Barshim, a high jumper, won the Diamond League title for the year and owns nine of the best 11 jumps in the world for 2017. He was the first high jumper to leap 2.40m or longer in five consecutive seasons. He was undefeated this season across 11 competitions, capped by the world championships. IAAF President Seb Coe presented Barshim’s trophy.

Belgium’s Nafissatou Thiam was the female winner, after winning last year’s Female Rising Star Award. She won gold at the Rio Olympics in the heptathlon, and followed it up this year with the world championship title. HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco presented Thiam with the award.

“We celebrate your amazing contributions to a phenomenal year of athletics,” Coe said in a speech, according to an IAAF press release. “I’m particularly excited by the young generation of talent which so dramatically came of age on the world stage in 2017. Athletics looks forward to a strong and exciting future safe in your hands.”

The other awards were presented to:

Karsten Warholm, Norway, 400m hurdles – Male Rising Star award

Yulimar Rojas, Venezuela, triple jump – Female Rising Star award

Anna Botha – Coaching Achievement award (she is best known for coaching van Niekerk)

Cherry Alexander, managing director for the IAAF World Championships London 2017 – Women in Athletics award

Paul Sanwell, photographer – Athletics Photograph of the Year award (for his photo of Sally Pearson in the 100m hurdles semifinal at the world championships)

More: Emma Coburn, Sam Kendricks win USATF Athlete of the Year awards