The athletics world wondered if Lyles could stand up to Erriyon Knighton. He left Thursday night in awe, armed with the knowledge that he had hunted down Michael Johnson. At the World Championships in Athletics, as the sunset reflected off the Coburg Hills in the distance beyond Hayward Field, Lyles ran halfway around an oval faster than any American , faster than any man except Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake.
On a night when track intellectuals felt he had to prove he could beat an 18-year-old prodigy, Lyles broke a 26-year-old record. When former TC Williams (now Alexandria City) High star crossed the finish line, the clock showed 19.32 seconds – the time Johnson carved into the record books at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics .
Lyles walked over to the clock and repeated, “Really? Really?” He bowed to the crowd and fell to his knees, hands clasped in prayer. After the standard verification process, Lyles looked at the clock again.
“And then that number went from 2 to 1, and my whole mood changed,” Lyles said.
Remember the time: 19.31 seconds. It’s the brand new Americans will be chasing in the 200. Lyles slapped the track three times and ripped off his jersey top. After a turbulent Olympic year that culminated in a bronze medal, Lyles has reclaimed his place not only at the top of his event, but in all of the sport.
“I didn’t know who was second,” Lyles said. “That’s how big the gap was.”
Alone in a dorm in Tokyo last year, Lyles recorded footage of the forever race Johnson ran with gold spikes in Atlanta. Johnson had set the lane 3 record, which inspired Lyles after he stumbled in the semis and charted the same unwanted lane.
Lyles finished third in Japan. Afterwards, in front of a pack of reporters, he wept, saying he wished his brother, Josephus, had competed in the Olympics in his place. Lyles struggled with mental health in 2021, openly discussing the effects of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. He took antidepressants, then stopped them because he said they were affecting his training. He lacked verve in the empty stadium.
Time and therapy have changed Lyles’ outlook. Crowds returned to follow the arenas and Lyles, a natural performer, fed on the energy. He tightened his entourage. Josephus, who turned pro with his brother out of high school, overcame a never-ending series of nagging injuries and made Team USA in the relay pool. Lyles felt like himself again.
“Every time I stepped onto the track this year, I knew I wasn’t the same person anymore,” he said. “It felt like I had found my juice, my groove. I was enjoying the track again. I was happy every day racing.
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Lyles had focused this year on his start and turn, and earlier at the worlds he had featured both. He won his semi-final in 19.62 seconds, a breathtaking preliminary time. Lyles’ coaches believed that if he executed his turn the same way, with the intensity of a finals, he could break the American record.
Knighton remained a threat. Last summer, he became the youngest U.S. Olympian in track and field since Jim Ryun in 1964. He placed fourth in the 200m at age 17 and expressed nothing but disappointment at the remarkable feat. For an encore this year, Knighton had added two more milestones. In April, at a small competition at LSU, Knighton sprinted a half lap in 19.49 seconds, which made him the fourth fastest man ever and broke Bolt’s junior record. A few weeks later, he graduated from Hillsborough High in Tampa.
Knighton’s run at LSU pushed him one spot ahead of Lyles on the all-time list, but Lyles hadn’t given up his spot as an American standard. Knighton had still not beaten Lyles head-to-head in a final. He came closest at last month’s US Championships, where Lyles chased Knighton down the home straight and beat him by 0.02 seconds, pointing Knighton’s face towards the clock as he broke the band.
Their showdown on Thursday became Eugene’s main attraction. No less an eminence than John Carlos was present. Carlos watched in person alongside Tommie Smith, who raised a gloved fist with Carlos in protest on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics after winning gold and bronze in the 200 meters. Carlos weighed in on another pair of American medalists beforehand.
“I like the young man, Mr. Lyles, because I looked at his career, I looked at his heart, and he’s a fighter,” Carlos said. “I look at the young man, Erriyon, he reminds me of myself because he’s a great individual but he executes a blistering turn. … I think Mr Lyles is going to have to do his greatest race ever or beat that young child.
Lyles knew Carlos and Smith well. At the Olympic trials last year, Lyles raised his gloved fist in the starting blocks for the 100-meter final. He met and conversed with both men as marches filled American streets two summers ago.
“They themselves are the people who inspired me to say, ‘You know what, I’m going to risk it all,'” Lyles said. “I don’t care what any company says. I will go out there and speak my truth about how I feel about Black Lives Matter. Because I’m not going to lie. I was afraid. The black man being at the top of the sport, they love it when you don’t go against the status quo.
Minutes before Lyles and Knighton set up in their blocks, Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson showed the conditions could make for an epic time. She won the women’s 200m in 21.45 seconds, the closest a woman has come to Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 21.34, a world record that no longer seems so unbreakable. Jackson passed fellow Jamaican and reigning Olympic gold medalist Elaine Thompson-Herah on the all-time list and held off compatriot Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the ageless legend who added a silver medal to the 100 meter gold which she won earlier in the competition.
As the public address introduced him to the blocks of Lane 6, Lyles raised his arms above his head and brought them to his chest, stuck his tongue out and shook out his short golden tresses. In pistol, Lyles rocketed out of the blocks – he would later call it the best start of his career. He overtook the two sprinters who started in front of him before the bend. When he came out of the corner, Lyles couldn’t feel Knighton.
“I was like, ‘Okay, I run myself,'” Lyles said.
Afterwards, Lyles ran into the crowd and hugged Josephus and his mother, Keisha Caine Bishop, the two people he missed the most in Tokyo. “You did it,” Caine Bishop told him. “You did it.”
Lyles had won so much that he didn’t realize until he got on the podium that Bednarek, the silver medalist in Tokyo, had finished second in 19.77 seconds, edging Knighton by 0.03 seconds. Bednarek, often overlooked, had signed off on arriving in Tokyo even after breaking his right big toe by dropping a wardrobe on it.
“I’m not a jack of all trades, apparently,” Bednarek said. “Then I realized that I had placed the cabinet incorrectly, which made the situation worse.”
Knighton still became the youngest sprint medalist at the world championships. His other prize? Summer vacation before he starts taking college classes.
“School wasn’t really that hard,” Knighton said. “It was just to get up.”
As he signed autographs in the stands, Johnson, here covering the event for the BBC, approached and congratulated him. Lyles told him about those nights in Tokyo, watching Johnson’s 200 meter record tape.
Those times seemed a long way off. During personal turmoil last year, Lyles advocated for mental health and discussed her own struggles so others could seek needed help. This year, Lyles showed that joy can wait on the other side of inner turmoil. This week, Lyles met with Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff, who is here in Oregon on President Biden’s behalf.
“I was wondering why he wanted to talk to me,” Lyles said late Thursday night. “Something that came out was that I was a man. And I was a black man talking about mental health. …And it was kind of a shock to me. We talked about the male ego, and how we feel we have to carry the weight of the whole world on our shoulders. And it doesn’t have to be that way. I really wanted to talk about mental health last year, and coming out on the other side this year shows it.
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Now that he’s come to his senses, now that he holds the American record, it’s tempting to wonder what’s next for Lyles, who turned 25 on Tuesday. He was asked who he considered his biggest rival, between Knighton and Bednarek. “Me,” Lyles said.
Only two men and 0.12 seconds separate Lyles from the world record. He separated himself from his peers, even the 18-year-old who challenged him this year. Bolt’s 19.19 has long been a fanciful target. He may have entered the realm of possibility on Thursday night. With so much behind him and so little ahead of him, Lyles was asked: is 19.19 in his sights?
“7:10 p.m.,” Lyles said.
To note: US decathlon champion Garrett Scantling, who finished fourth at the Tokyo Olympics, has accepted a provisional suspension for a possible doping violation and will not compete at the world championships, the US Anti-Doping Agency has announced. Scantling had been dropped from the decathlon start list for an unexplained reason.
He is not accused of having tested positive for a banned substance. Scantling committed possible whereabouts violations and possible tampering during an investigation of those violations, USADA said.