By Jonathan Gault
July 3, 2018
For most of the 2010s, track & field has been defined by Usain Bolt. And while Bolt delivered some magnificent performances at global championships during that span, the Diamond League circuit — track & field’s regular season — was largely defined by the sport’s biggest sprint names avoiding each other. For the final four years of his career, Bolt never raced Justin Gatlin outside of a global championship. For the final seven years of his career, Bolt raced Yohan Blake precisely once outside of a championship meet. Gatlin and Blake have raced each other outside of a championship once, ever — and that came in 2010, before Blake was a name and when Gatlin was just returning to the sport after serving a four-year doping ban. Those three men — Bolt, Gatlin, and Blake — have combined to win the last eight global 100-meter titles, and 10 of the last 11.
Part of Bolt’s — let’s call it selectivity — was out of necessity. His balky back and hamstring meant that Bolt had to be cautious about when he chose to race; had he run more frequently and pushed himself harder on the Diamond League circuit, he may have risked aggravating those injuries and robbing us of those spectacular Olympic moments. But sometimes, Bolt just dodged people, never more blatantly than in 2017, when he avoided Blake and Olympic 5th placer Akani Simbine at the Racers Grand Prix by racing in his own “Salute to a Legend” heat. Later that year, triple Olympic medalist Andre De Grasse‘s coach Stuart McMillan claimed Bolt was responsible for booting De Grasse out of the 100-meter field in Monaco; Bolt’s management denies that was the case, but De Grasse did not run the race.
Bolt is gone now, and while his absence is keenly felt, there is one silver lining: we may actually get to see the world’s top male sprinters race each other. That may not be a permanent arrangement — stars dodging stars has far from vanished from the sport — but track fans should savor these matchups when they get them.
And no matchup in 2018 is more mouth-watering than Noah Lyles vs. Michael Norman in the 200 meters at Thursday’s Athletissima Diamond League meet in Lausanne, Switzerland. (In case you’re wondering, there are no World Cup games that day — so tell your non-track fans to tune into the Olympic Channel; Lyles and Norman race at 3:38 p.m. ET).
This is the race of the year on the Diamond League circuit, two 20-year-old supernovas colliding in an awesome explosion of talent. Lyles and Norman will always be connected for their exploits at the 2016 Olympic Trials, where each man won his semifinal and eventually finished 4th and 5th in the final (Lyles prevailed, 20.09 to 20.14). But now they’re connected as the fastest sprinters on Planet Earth at their respective distances. Lyles owns the world’s top time at 100 meters (9.88, since equaled by Ronnie Baker) thanks to his victory at USAs while Norman’s 43.61 on a wet Hayward Field track at NCAAs tops the 400 list.
But this matchup is at 200, and right now, Lyles owns that distance: he’s the reigning Diamond League champ, is tied for the world lead at 19.69, and hasn’t lost an outdoor 200 since that race at the Olympic Trials almost two years ago.
Still, Norman ain’t bad at the 200. He just ran 19.84 into a 0.6 headwind in Paris on Saturday, and because of that headwind, some view it as a superior performance to Lyles’ 19.69 (which came with a 2.0 tailwind). Oh, and Norman hasn’t lost an outdoor 200 since the 2016 Trials, either.
That’s right. Since Lyles and Norman last met as high school seniors at the 2016 Olympic Trials, no one has beaten either man in an outdoor 200. Expect fireworks in Lausanne.
If you’re a veteran track fan (or Nick Willis), this matchup may remind you of a similar one that took place in Lausanne 12 years ago: Xavier Carter vs. Tyson Gay. Gay, who was still seven years away from testing positive for a banned substance, was, like Lyles, fresh off his first national title in the 100 meters. Gay led for most of the race in Lausanne, yet despite running a stellar 19.70, he lost to Carter — who, like Lyles and Norman right now, was just 20 years old at the time and ran down Gay with a stellar 19.63 from lane 8 (he remains #7 on the all-time list). Check it out:
reminds me of this race I watched right before our 3000m went onto the track:https://t.co/WV73O1iecl (notice Bolt only 3rd)
— Nick Willis (@nickwillis) June 15, 2018
Oh, and did you notice who finished third in 19.88? Yes, that’s a 19-year-old Bolt (who would return to Lausanne six years later and set the meet record of 19.58).
Twelve years from now, no one can know where Lyles and Norman will end up. After 2006, Carter only broke 20 seconds once more; he never made an Olympic team and was out of the sport by his 26th birthday. Bolt became the greatest sprinter in history. Both of those outcomes are on the table for the young Americans.
We also don’t know how long we’ll have to wait until the two race again. It could come as soon as July 20, in the next Diamond League 200 in Monaco (Lyles is already committed). We may have to wait another two years, until the 2020 Olympic Trials. It may never happen.
But right now, the most important unknown is a lot simpler. There is a race on Thursday. Who is going to win?
Full Lausanne Diamond League men’s 200 field
|Rai Benjamin||Antigua & Barbuda||19.99||19.99|
|Jereem Richards||Trindad & Tobago||19.97||19.99|