By Jonathan Gault
May 21, 2019
If you were to draw up two rivals from scratch, you could do a lot worse than Christian Coleman and Noah Lyles.
Coleman, a 23-year-old from Atlanta, is short and powerfully built. Humble and intensely competitive, he is quiet and reserved off the track. Coleman’s rare displays of emotion are saved for only the biggest moments; when that emotion does come out, it’s usually via a spontaneous display of joy, such as when he skipped down the straightaway in Albuquerque last year after breaking the 60-meter world record. His greatest weapon is his start, which allows him to routinely blow away the competition before the race is even half done. That’s what carried him to that world record and a world indoor title over 60 meters last year, and it’s what allowed him to lead the first 90 meters of the 2017 World Championship 100-meter final before Justin Gatlin overtook him and won by two-hundredths of a second.
Lyles, 21, who grew up in Gainesville, Fla., before moving to Alexandria, Va., as a teen when his parents divorced, is the opposite. Taller and lankier than Coleman, Lyles is loud and boisterous, unafraid to talk big before a race because he so often backs it up on the track. Lyles craves the spotlight, and his celebrations serve as a showcase for his many passions, whether it’s calling for a Dragon Ball Z spirit bomb before the Prefontaine Classic, waving a make-believe lightsaber after a win in Doha, or showing off his Fortnite-inspired dance moves after claiming his first USATF outdoor title. In races, Lyles takes time to get up to top speed, but once he reaches it, he holds it better than any sprinter on earth. If Coleman has the best first 80 meters of any 100-meter runner right now, Lyles has the best final 20.
Nowhere were their differences on display better than Saturday’s Shanghai Diamond League. Paired against each other in the men’s 100, the final event of the night, Coleman and Lyles’ first matchup of the 2019 season lived up to the billing and then some. If you haven’t seen it, it is a must-watch:
The study in contrasts began during pre-race introductions. As the cameraman moved down the start line to introduce each runner, Coleman did his best to ignore him, shaking out his muscular shoulders, closing his eyes and folding his lower lip above his upper one to prevent any hint of a smile sneaking out. Once his name was called on the loudspeakers, he raised his left arm to the crowd before returning to his state of hyperfocus. Lyles, meanwhile, was aware of the camera’s presence from the moment it focused on him, playfully licking his lips and stroking his beard before transitioning into a pre-planned introduction: he drew his left index finger like a gun, shot the camera, brought his finger to his lips, blew it out, and holstered it on his left hip while winking.
Once the gun went off, both men ran to form. Coleman exploded out of the blocks and built a lead of a meter or two midway down the home straight. Lyles, meanwhile, was maybe fourth with 40 meters to go, but at that point he reached his top gear and began mowing down the field as the rest of the racers struggled to hold on. It was a two-man race, and Lyles knew it; as he crossed the finish line, he stared two lanes to his left to see for himself exactly where Coleman was.
It came down to a photo finish, with Lyles awarded the win by six-thousandths of a second. Both men were credited with an official time of 9.86 seconds — a world leader and personal best for Lyles. Third placer Akani Simbine of South Africa was almost a full tenth back in 9.95.
On its own, Coleman-Lyles in Shanghai was great theater. But it was also important for what it represented: the birth of a rivalry that could define the sport’s marquee event for the remainder of the 2020 Olympic cycle — and perhaps the next one as well.
There are plenty of criteria by which to judge a rivalry, but let’s focus on a couple of basic ones: the rivals need to compete regularly, and when they do, there needs to be some doubt about the outcome.
From 2013-2017, the top two 100-meter sprinters in the world were Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin. But their “rivalry” left much to be desired. For one, Bolt and Gatlin dodged each other unless it was absolutely necessary. From 2014 through 2017, the two raced each other just three times over 100 meters — at the 2015 Worlds, 2016 Olympics, and 2017 Worlds. For another, Bolt owned Gatlin, sporting an 8-2 career record over 100 meters.
All of this made Coleman vs. Lyles that much more noteworthy. For one, Coleman and Lyles — the two best 100-meter runners in the world right now — were squaring off in the first Diamond League 100 of the year. Throw in matchups at the USATF Outdoor Championships in July and the World Championships in September and Coleman and Lyles could meet as many times in five months as Bolt and Gatlin did over four years.
The result in Shanghai was important as well. Outdoors, Coleman is known as a 100-meter specialist, while Lyles specializes in the 200. Last year, Lyles won the US 100-meter title, but lost both of his head-to-head matchups with Coleman at 100, even though Coleman was still recovering from a hamstring injury. For Lyles to step down to Coleman’s event and hand him a loss in Shanghai was a big step.
“In NBA basketball, the series starts when the home team loses,” said NBC sprints analyst Ato Boldon. “…This is a rivalry at 100 now. And more importantly, the fans want to see it. Because now the fans are like, okay Christian, what you got? And Noah, was that a fluke, or is that how you’re bringing it every week?”
Earlier this year, Lyles told Reuters that he was not planning on running the 100 meters at USAs or Worlds in 2019 (Coleman has said he plans to run both the 100 and 200 this year). But Boldon is convinced that, after his win in Shanghai, Lyles’ plans will change. The opportunity to dominate at both distances is too great to pass up.
“No question,” Boldon says. “Absolutely no question.”
Eventually, should one of (or both) their stars grow too big, Coleman-Lyles showdowns could grow fewer and farther between. But for the next two years at least, we should be treated to several more matchups between the young stars.
Quantity and quality of matchups is a necessity for a good rivalry, but a little animosity doesn’t hurt either. And it sure seems like that’s what we received on Sunday when Coleman fired off this tweet.
Some of y’all got the game messed up. The name of the game is World medals. But PRin in May is cool for social media doe
— Christian Coleman (@__coleman) May 19, 2019
This is what the kids call a subtweet. Lyles isn’t named, but considering Lyles was the only man in the nine-person field to run a PR, the implication seems pretty clear.
“That’s a direct shot,” Boldon says.
On Monday evening, Coleman doubled down.
Seems as if some people are confused. It’s nothing wrong with a PR. But if your goal is to run fast in May to taunt and flex online then your priorities aren’t straight imo. The season is just getting started
— Christian Coleman (@__coleman) May 20, 2019
That wasn’t all. Earlier on Sunday, Coleman’s girlfriend, University of Georgia sprinter Micaiah Ransby, had fired off a tweet of her own. This one was less ambiguous.
someone gets an inch, or a win by .006 & they take a mile 😂
— 𝓂𝒾𝒸𝒶𝒾𝒶𝒽 𝓇𝒶𝓃𝓈𝒷𝓎 (@caisofly) May 19, 2019
This stuff may seem a little silly — and tame compared to the social media drama that goes down in the NBA — but it’s something we rarely see at this level of professional track & field and certainly not a bad thing. Theoretically, the 100 meters is an event that should be greatly aided by Twitter. Races are 10 seconds long and easily shareable. It’s a lot easier for the casual fan to follow the event through social media, at least in the United States. (The Coleman-Lyles Shanghai race was not shown live in the United States — if you wanted to watch it live, you had to pony up $75 for the NBC’s online streaming service — and when it did finally air on TV, over a day later on the Olympic Channel, it went up directly against the Game of Thrones series finale and the NBA conference finals).
And if there is a beef between Coleman and Lyles? Boldon believes that will only draw more eyeballs to the sport.
“Christian, I think, looks at Noah and he goes, This guy’s everything I’m not. He’s loud, he’s brash, he’s talkative. I don’t say a lot, I just run, and he’s over here with all the other stuff and he’s rapping and he’s on social media. That’s good. That’s the way my generation was: I don’t particularly like you and I want to beat you.
“When I see Twitter posts and the girlfriends getting involved and going back and forth, I’m like, ‘Good.’ Whether or not anybody likes it, this is going to contribute to more people watching and more people being interested. The two best 100-meter runners in the world right now are American, and they don’t seem to particularly like each other. That’s a good thing.”
Talk about Lyles vs. Coleman on on the world famous LetsRun.com fan forum / messageboad. MB: Is the Next Great Sprint Rivalry Here? Christian Coleman (and Girlfriend) Throw Shade At Noah Lyles on Twitter