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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Noah Lyles matches Usain Bolt feat in Speed Racer socks

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Noah Lyles put on his Speed Racer socks and roared like a Dragon Ball Z character. Then he backed it up as usual, winning the Diamond League final 200m in 19.67 seconds in Zurich on Thursday.

“I was looking for a PR, like always,” Lyles, who missed his best time by .02 running into a slight headwind, said on Swiss TV. “But getting close to it is even better. It really humbles yourself to make sure that next year I’m going to really bring it.”

It was .01 off Usain Bolt‘s meet record from 2012. Bolt remains incomparable, but Lyles is the closest thing the sport has seen since the Jamaican’s retirement a year ago.

The dancing Lyles has four times broken 19.7 seconds this season. Only Bolt has done so before, during his peak season in 2009. Michael Johnson broke 19.7 twice in his entire career.

Lyles turned 21 last month. When Bolt was that old, his personal best was 19.75, one tenth slower than Lyles’ current best. Though Bolt lowered it to 19.30 by the time he turned 22.

Lyles is undefeated in outdoor 200m races since he finished fourth at the 2016 Olympic Trials, just missing the Rio team as an 18-year-old. He was injured at the 2017 U.S. Championships, forcing him out of the 2017 Worlds.

So Lyles never raced Bolt, but he has been the world’s best sprinter this season, also taking the U.S. 100m title in June.

Full Zurich results are here.

The last Diamond League meet of the season is Friday in Brussels, live on NBC Sports Gold at 12:05 p.m. ET and Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA at 2.

In other events Thursday, Olympic and world champion Conseslus Kipruto won the 3000m steeplechase with one shoe.

Caster Semenya extended a near-three-year win streak in the 800m, gapping the field by 2.59 seconds in 1:55.27. World bronze medalist Ajeé Wilson of the U.S. was the distant runner-up.

Semenya owns the world’s seven fastest times since the start of 2016, topped by her South African record 1:54.25 from June 30, but the 800m could look different next year.

An IAAF rule limiting testosterone in female middle-distance runners is scheduled to go into effect next season. Semenya, who was gender tested in 2009, is challenging it to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Kenyan Timothy Cheruiyot continued his recent 1500m domination, pulling away from training partner Elijah Manangoi. Cheruiyot clocked 3:30.27, beating Manangoi by .89. Cheruiyot, who took silver at 2017 Worlds behind Manangoi, went undefeated in six Diamond League races this year.

In the men’s 400m, 2017 U.S. champion Fred Kerley won a Wayde van Niekerk-less race in 44.80 seconds. That was well off the fastest time in the world this year (43.61) held by American Michael Norman (also not in Zurich). Kerley said after that he was coming off an injury.

Van Niekerk, the Olympic and world champ and world-record holder, missed all of this season after October 2017 meniscus and ACL tears playing touch rugby.

World silver medalist Steven Gardiner of the Bahamas pulled up on the last straightaway and did not finish. He was able to walk off the track.

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Noah Lyles

Track and field breakout stars dot Diamond League finals; TV, stream info

Shelby Houlihan, Mondo Duplantis
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If this week’s Diamond League finals fields show anything, it’s that 2018 has been the year of the breakthrough track and field athlete.

The world’s best gather in Zurich and Brussels, where Diamond League season champions will be crowned, live on NBCSN and Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBC Sports Gold on Thursday and Friday.

Thursday: Zurich, 2-4 p.m. ET, NBCSN, NBC Sports Gold
Friday: Brussels, 2-4 p.m. ET, Olympic Channel, NBC Sports Gold

Some of the most anticipated events are highlighted by athletes with no Olympic or world outdoor championships medals to their names: Norwegian wunderkind Jakob Ingebrigtsen and new American 5000m record holder Shelby Houlihan in the 1500m, U.S. sprint sensation Noah Lyles in the 200m, recent Louisiana high school graduate Mondo Duplantis of Sweden in the pole vault and the world’s fastest man this year — American Ronnie Baker.

Wednesday update: Ingebrigtsen withdrew from his Diamond League final with a sore throat, according to Norway’s track and field federation.

ZURICH START LISTS | BRUSSELS START LISTS

Here are 10 events to watch:

Women’s 800m — Thursday, 2:13 p.m. ET
Caster Semenya puts a near-three-year win streak against the next six fastest women in the world this year. That includes Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi and American Ajeé Wilson, the world silver and bronze medalists. This will be the toughest field Semenya faces for at least eight months. This event could look very different by then with an IAAF rule limiting testosterone in female middle-distance runners scheduled to go into effect next season. Semenya is challenging it to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Men’s 3000m Steeplechase — Thursday, 2:24 p.m. ET
Field includes the nine men who combine to own the 26 fastest times in the world this year. Kenyan Conseslus Kipruto, the Olympic and world champion, has looked vulnerable in 2018 with three Diamond League defeats. American Evan Jager, the Olympic silver medalist and world bronze medalist, owns the second-fastest time of 2018. But he has never won against a field this strong.

Men’s 1500m — Thursday, 2:48 p.m. ET
The world’s seven fastest of 2018 are here, but focus on the top four. World leader Timothy Cheruiyot‘s only losses in the last 13 months came in arguably his three biggest meets — the 2017 World Championships and this year’s Commonwealth Games and African Championships. He finished second in each race to the same man — countryman Elijah Manangoi, who is second-fastest in the world this year. After the Kenyans are Norwegian brothers Filip Ingebrigtsen and Jakob Ingebrigtsen, the latter a 17-year-old who is the youngest sub-four-minute miler in history. He also just swept the 1500m and 5000m at the European Championships.

Men’s 200m — Thursday, 3:11 p.m. ET
Essentially a head-to-head between American Noah Lyles, the world’s best 200m runner post-Rio, and Turkey’s Ramil Guliyev, who won the 2017 World title in Lyles’ absence due to injury. Lyles, whose ebullience is most clearly expressed by his race socks, has won all of his outdoor 200m finals since finishing fourth at the Olympic Trials as an 18-year-old. His three fastest times came in his last three races: 19.69, 19.69 and 19.65. Guliyev just consolidated his shock world title by winning the European title in a personal-best 19.76.

Men’s Pole Vault — Friday, 1:28 p.m. ET
Three in the field have cleared 6.03 meters. Hasn’t happened since 2000. The man with the most excitement is recent Louisiana High School graduate Mondo Duplantis, who competes for Sweden, his mother’s native country. Duplantis just won the European title by clearing 6.05 meters. Only Sergey Bubka has vaulted higher outdoors in history. Also in this field: World-record holder Renaud Lavillenie of France (record set indoors), world champion Sam Kendricks of the U.S. and Rio gold medalist Thiago Braz of Brazil.

Women’s 3000m Steeplechase — Friday, 2:11 p.m. ET
Deepest field between Zurich and Brussels? Ten women who combine to own the 28 fastest times this year. Americans Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs, who went a shocking one-two at the 2017 Worlds, take on Kenya’s best — Beatrice Chepkoech, Celliphine Chespol and Hyvin Kiyeng, who rank Nos. 1, 3 and 5 all-time.

Women’s 1500m — Friday, 2:41 p.m. ET
American Shelby Houlihan, the 2018 revelation of female distance running, takes on her toughest competition of an undefeated outdoor season. That includes Olympic and world medalist Jenny Simpson and the third-, fourth- and fifth-fastest women this year — Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan, Ethiopian Gudaf Tsegay and Brit Laura Muir. Absent is world leader and world-record holder Genzebe Dibaba, whose only head-to-heads with Houlihan came at the world indoor championships in March.

Men’s Triple Jump — Friday, 2:47 p.m. ET
Christian Taylor, winner of the last two Olympics and last two worlds, has also been ranked No. 1 each of the previous three years. But Cuban-born Pedro Pablo Pichardo of Portugal owns the best triple jump of this year going into the Diamond League finals. Taylor won their last two head-to-heads in July but must leap a wind-legal 17.95 meters, which he hasn’t done since May 2017, to overtake Pichardo in the rankings.

Men’s 100m — Friday, 2:54 p.m. ET
Since the last Diamond League, American Ronnie Baker climbed to the top of the 2018 world rankings in the 100m (9.87 seconds). Baker, who grew up partially running cross-country in Alaska, has never won a U.S. or NCAA title or made an Olympic or world championships team outdoors. In Zurich, he takes on the more accomplished Christian Coleman, who at this time last year (and six months ago) was the clear favorite to succeed Usain Bolt long-term. Injuries hampered Coleman’s outdoor season, but he did beat Baker in their last head-to-head on July 13. The winner Friday could carry bragging rights into 2019.

Women’s 100m Hurdles — Friday, 3:15 p.m. ET
Rio gold medalist Brianna McNeal and world-record holder Kendra Harrison duel for the fifth time this season. Harrison owns the 3-1 edge and has the fastest time of 2018 (12.36). This will also be the last Diamond League race for the retiring Dawn Harper-Nelson, who earned Olympic gold in 2008 and silver in 2012.

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