Ato Boldon

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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Ato Boldon remembers Usain Bolt’s first world record on 10th anniversary

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An hour before going on the air for the 2008 Reebok Grand Prix, Ato Boldon heard from a trusted Jamaican. Listen, the friend said, I was in the stadium when Usain Bolt ran a 100m at a small meet in Kingston four weeks earlier and clocked 9.76 seconds, then the second-fastest time in history in his third career 100m race.

“You guys are going to get a shock tonight,” Boldon remembered the friend saying.

About 45 minutes before midnight, after nearly two hours of rainstorm delays, Bolt broke the 100m world record for the first time on Randalls Island between Manhattan and Queens. 9.72 seconds.

Boldon, calling the meet for CBS, would not have expected it at dawn that Saturday. Bolt was already promising and decorated, but in the 200m as a world junior champion in 2002 and senior world silver medalist in 2007. Bolt’s coach preferred the 400m as his complementary event.

All that made Boldon skeptical of the 9.76 from the Jamaica Invitational on May 3.

“Wait a minute, his [third] race was a 9.76? Eh, I don’t know about that,” Boldon recalled Thursday. “Maybe the wind gauge blew over [with too much tailwind for legal times], or the track was short.”

Neither, Boldon’s friend assured him. Bolt broke the 100m world record for the first of three times that night — followed by his 9.69 two months later at the Beijing Olympics and 9.58 at the 2009 World Championships.

“It’s not like now where if a world record gets broken, everyone sees it immediately,” Boldon said. “So this was his coming out in just track and field. But to the world, he didn’t arrive until Beijing.”

Of the reported 5,000 or 6,000 people at Icahn Stadium that evening, a man who sticks out is Carter Blackburn. He sat with Boldon and called a track and field meet for the first time in his TV career (Boldon said Blackburn hasn’t called a meet since, either).

“Carter Blackburn foreshadowed it,” Boldon said. “When the gun goes off, he says, ‘Finally, a clean start. Will it be historic?’ Despite the fact it was his very first track and field meet, he actually had an inkling that something special was about 80 meters away.”

The meet was billed as a head-to-head between Bolt and Tyson Gay, the American who swept the 100m, 200m and 4x100m at the 2007 Worlds to become the Olympic sprint favorite. Bolt might not have even been regarded as the fastest Jamaican. Asafa Powell, who would pass by Bolt’s house on the way to train every day, had the world record of 9.74 seconds.

Bolt’s first world record may go down as his most unique. It’s the only one that he didn’t set at an Olympics or world championships. It came in the world’s biggest city, but not in the spotlight — 11:15 at night after rain drove away spectators. Except for the boisterous Jamaicans.

“They were there to see Bolt,” Boldon said. “While waiting for the race, there was a singing contest. It almost become a Jamaican national rally. By the time the race went off, they were ready to explode.”

Miss Jamaica even interviewed sprinters while wearing her sash, according to The New York Times. A post-meet reggae concert had been scheduled, according to The Associated Press.

Bolt’s excitement was evident, too, after reportedly spending the entire day sleeping peacefully in his hotel room. He pointed toward the stands as he crossed the finish line and didn’t stop for another 200 meters around the curve.

“I wasn’t really looking for the world record,” Bolt said that night, “but it was there for the taking. I knew after 50 meters the race was over.”

Bolt’s coach, Glen Mills, was hesitant for Bolt to race the 100m at the Olympics, worried that it could affect his chances of winning the 200m. But Bolt had earned the chance to try, starting with a deal between he and Mills, by breaking the Jamaican 200m record in 2007.

“The Olympics are the big thing for me,” Bolt said in New York. “It doesn’t matter if I have the world record, if I don’t have the Olympic medal”

Boldon predicted after that race that “there was no question” Bolt would break into the 9.6s.

“We look like junior high kids out there compared to the man,” U.S. sprinter Doc Patton said that night, according to Sports Illustrated. “What an impressive athlete. Twenty-one years old, six-foot-five. Sky’s the limit, man.”

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MORE: Bolt continues foray into soccer with new club

Three more NBC correspondents for PyeongChang Olympics announced

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Mary CarilloAto Boldon and David Feherty will serve as NBC Olympics correspondents in PyeongChang, while Joshua Cooper Ramo returns as a contributor.

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They join previously announced correspondents chef David Chang and 1984 Olympic champion figure skater Scott Hamilton.

Correspondents will explore the culture, people and traditions in South Korea, while also telling athlete and competition stories.

Carillo, a former WTA player and longtime tennis analyst, will cover her 14th Olympics and 11th with NBC Sports. She will continue to provide travelogues about the Olympic host city and country, as she has done since the 2008 Beijing Games. Carillo traversed South Korea, partly with Chang.

Boldon, a four-time Olympic medalist sprinter from Trinidad and Tobago, will cover his sixth Olympics and second Winter Games.

Feherty, a retired professional golfer from Northern Ireland and longtime golf analyst, will cover his second Olympics after debuting in Rio.

Cooper Ramo, the youngest senior editor and foreign editor in the history of Time Magazine, also covers his second Olympics for NBC. In 2008, he discussed culture and geo-political issues as NBC’s China analyst at the Beijing Games.

NBC’s PyeongChang Olympic coverage starts Feb. 8, one night before the Opening Ceremony.

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MORE: Breakdown of 2,400 hours of Pyeongchang programming