Wayde van Niekerk

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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Ten memorable Summer Olympic gold-medal moments from 2010s

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NBCSports.com looks back at the 2010s this week. Here are 10 Summer Olympic gold-medal moments that defined the decade …

London 2012: Fierce Five puts U.S. back atop women’s gymnastics
Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney and Kyla Ross became the first U.S. gymnastics team to win an Olympic title outside of a home Games. This group set the tone for what would become a dynasty — the U.S. women have won every Olympic and world team and all-around title since 2011. Douglas went on to capture the all-around in London. Raisman grabbed her all-around medal in Rio, a silver. Wieber kicked it off with the 2011 World all-around crown. Maroney was shockingly relegated to silver in the 2012 Olympic vault final, then repeated as world champion in 2013. Ross would join Simone Biles on world all-around podiums in 2013 and 2014.

London 2012: Michael Phelps breaks career Olympic medals record
Though Phelps broke Mark Spitz‘s single-Games mark by taking eight golds in 2008, he entered the decade in second place on the career Olympic medals list behind 1950s and ’60s Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina. Phelps needed three medals in London — what he said would be his final Games — to take the lead with 19 total. He tied and broke the record on the same night with a silver behind Chad le Clos in the 200m butterfly and gold anchoring the 4x200m freestyle relay. Phelps went on to win another nine Olympic medals between London and Rio — with a brief retirement in between — to finish with 28 medals and 23 golds. Latynina, with 18 medals and nine golds, is now a distant second.

London 2012: Misty May-Treanor/Kerri Walsh Jennings three-peat
The greatest team in beach volleyball history took their final bow together at Horse Guards Parade, completing an undefeated run for a third straight Olympics. May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings had separate win streaks of 90 and 112 matches in the 2000s but were vulnerable going into London. They had won four of their 17 international events together since May-Treanor unretired in 2011. But they dropped just one set in seven matches at the Olympics, sweeping countrywomen Jen Kessy and April Ross in the final. May-Treanor retired from international play for good, while Walsh Jennings planted the seed of her next partnership at the net after the final. She and Ross paired and earned bronze in Rio.

London 2012: David Rudisha breaks world record in epic 800m final
Maybe the greatest race in history. The Maasai warrior Rudisha was tapped by many to break his own world record in his Olympic debut. He did it, leading from the break and towing six of the seven other finalists to personal bests. Rudisha clocked 1:40.91, becoming the first man to break 1:41. Every runner’s time was the fastest ever for that finishing placement. “It was the performance of the Games, not just of track and field, but of the Games,” said London 2012 chairman Seb Coe, a former 800m world-record holder.

London 2012: David Boudia wins platform on final dive
Boudia, after qualifying last out of 18 divers out of preliminaries, entered the sixth and last final-round dive in a virtual tie with world champion Qiu Bo of China and British favorite Tom Daley. For the biggest dive of his life, Boudia performed the highest-scoring dive of the day — 102.60 points — on a back two-and-a-half somersault with two-and-a-half twists in the pike position. He won by 1.80 points over Qiu, giving the U.S. its first Olympic diving title since Laura Wilkinson in 2000.

Rio 2016: Simone Biles, Aly Raisman go 1-2 in all-around
For Biles, gold was a coronation marking four years of unprecedented excellence. For Raisman, silver was sweet, representing a three-year comeback journey to become an even better gymnast than she was in London (where she missed an all-around medal on a tiebreak). Biles’ margin of victory — 2.1 points — was greater than the previous nine Olympic margins combined. Raisman had a 1.433-point edge over bronze medalist Aliya Mustafina, greater than the margin separating Mustafina from the 10th-place finisher.

Rio 2016: Katie Ledecky completes 4-gold-medal Games with second world record
You can’t ask much more of a swimmer than a personal best. When Ledecky does that, it usually means a world record. She shattered personal bests in the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles en route to four golds (including the 4x200m free relay) at her second Olympics. The 400m and 800m frees were world records, nearly two seconds faster than the previous marks. Ledecky shed rare tears after the last race, the 800m free, knowing it was her final one under D.C.-area coach Bruce Gemmell before matriculating at Stanford.

Rio 2016: Wayde van Niekerk breaks Michael Johnson’s 400m world record
From way out in lane eight, the South African took down Johnson’s 17-year-old world record in perhaps the most astonishing feat of the Games. Van Niekerk, then coached by a 74-year-old grandmother (Ans Botha), clocked 43.03 seconds. Usain Bolt, watching on a TV in the stadium, covered his mouth in a similar reaction to many at the Maracana. The two sprinters trained together earlier that year. “Bolt told me in Jamaica, ‘You will break the world record,'” van Niekerk said in Rio. “Tonight [Bolt] said, ‘I told you you can do it.'”

Rio 2016: Usain Bolt finishes golden Olympic career
With one last relay leg, the Jamaican bid farewell to the Olympics with a “triple-triple,” gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics (the 2008 relay title would later be stripped for a teammate’s doping). Though Bolt turned a close 4x100m into a runaway on anchor, perhaps the more memorable image of that night came hours later. Some time after midnight, Bolt made his way back onto the track and threw a javelin.

Rio 2016: Neymar wins Brazil’s first Olympic soccer title in shootout
In what he later called the most nervous moment of his life, Neymar calmly netted the decisive shootout attempt in the Olympic final at the Maracana. The opponent: Germany, whose national team trounced Brazil 7-1 two years earlier in the World Cup semifinals, also in Brazil. Neymar dropped to his knees, was mobbed by teammates and then sobbed. Brazil, a five-time World Cup champion, earned its first Olympic soccer title and its most coveted medal of the Rio Games.

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Wayde van Niekerk to miss world championships

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Wayde van Niekerk, the Olympic and world 400m champion and world-record holder, will miss next month’s world championships. He has been essentially sidelined from competition for two years since tearing a meniscus and ACL in a celebrity tag rugby match.

“I’m still positive and I’m just taking things day by day, respecting all the calls made by the doctor and respecting my body,” Van Niekerk, who has resumed training, said in a statement. “For now I’m not rushing myself or putting pressure on myself. I’m extremely happy and at peace with where I am.”

Van Niekerk, who ran 43.03 at the Rio Olympics to break Michael Johnson‘s world record, had hoped to return in full this season, but a knee bone bruise set him back.

Van Niekerk made a low-key return at a meet in South Africa on Feb. 28, clocking 47.28 seconds. That’s his lone meet since he won the 400m and took 200m silver at the August 2017 World Championships, according to Tilastopaja.org.

Van Niekerk would have been a clear underdog had he entered worlds in Doha that start in three weeks.

American Michael Norman ran the sixth-fastest 400m in history on April 20, a 43.45 that was also the fastest ever run before the month of June. Van Niekerk has broken 43.45 just once, in that Rio Olympic epic. He and Norman have never raced head-to-head.

It looks like the Rio Olympic 400m silver and bronze medalists will both be absent from worlds.

Grenada’s Kirani James, who has not raced since July 2018 and has been out with Graves’ Disease, must race by Saturday to be eligible for worlds. Representatives for James and Grenada’s federation have not responded to requests for comment on his status.

American LaShawn Merritt has raced once since June 2, 2018,and has not raced a 400m since bowing out of the 2017 World Championships in the semifinals.

The U.S. has the six fastest 400m runners this season.

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