For a very long time, U.S. track fans – and to be honest, participants – felt a certain pride of ownership in the men 100- and 200-meter Olympic races. This was more resonant in the 100, which long established who would leave the Games with the title of World’s Fastest Human (although I’m not convinced Marcell Jacobs should make that this Instagram handle quite yet); but the 200 was always tethered, as so often the man who won the shorter race was a threat to double back in the longer (not only at the Olympics, but at every high school dual meet in the country, as long as there have been dual meets).
American men won 12 of the first 16 Olympic 100s and 12 of the first 15 Olympic 200s (which includes five doublers in that span). This covers the time period that ended with Jim Hines winning the 100 meters and Tommie Smith the 200 in Mexico City in 1968. In many of those years, it was more statistically difficult to survive the U.S. Olympic Trials than the Olympic Games. Since then, the U.S. has won the 100 meters just four times in 13 Olympics (Carl Lewis twice, Maurice Greene, Justin Gatlin) and the 200 meters only five times in those same 13 Olympics (Lewis, Joe DeLoach, Michael Marsh, Michael Johnson and Shawn Crawford). U.S. men’s sprinters have won neither the 100 nor the 200 since 2004, when training partners Gatlin (100) and Crawford (200) swept the two races in Athens.
Okay: Important disclaimer here: It’s okay to win silver and bronze medals. Wednesday’s medals from Bednarek and Lyles in the 200 were the first for the U.S.A since 2008. And with Fred Kerley’s silver Monday in 100, the U.S. has medaled in six consecutive Games in that event, a total of seven medals. If there’s a message these 2020 Games have imparted, it’s that often too much pressure is applied in the American Olympic universe to Bring Home the Gold. There are not bad medals (although sure, some can be disappointing at the highest level). Nevertheless, treading lightly here: This is sprinting, and sprinting leans toward binary: The fastest man (or woman) wins. And the U.S. men have not been winning a lot at the Olympics, lately.
There are two reasons for this:
1) Usain Bolt was born
2) It’s difficult to win Olympic sprints. You need fast runners, physically and mentally healthy, and they need to run fast on the day of the Olympic final, against a much bigger world than faced, say, double gold medalist Bobby Morrow in 1956.
The first point: In 9.69 seconds, 13 years ago on a clear night in Beijing, Bolt took gold medals off the table in the 100 and 200 for a then-undefinable future. That future turned out to be three Olympics, during which there was no beating the best and most charismatic sprinter in history. *Gatlin came close at the 2015 world championships in Moscow; Bolt had battled injuries all season and Gatlin led him nearly every step of the 100 meters before tightening in the final half-dozen strides and losing by .01 seconds. It was a rare opportunity. (The only Olympic or world title Bolt did not win from ’08 to ’16 was the 2011 worlds in Daegu, when he false-started out of the 100 meters, which was won by Jamaican teammate, Yohan Blake).
On Wednesday night in Tokyo (Wednesday morning EDT), that winless streak reached four Olympics, when 26-year-old Andre De Grasse of Canada won the 200 meters, in front of Americans Kenny Bednarek and Noah Lyles. (This was not an upset: You could argue Lyles was the favorite in the race, with the fastest personal best (19.50) and the 2019 world championship, but De Grasse won bronze (100) and silver (200) in Rio in 2016, and had come back from injuries to win bronze in the 100 meters in Tokyo; and Lyles had not been running to his previous bests).
In short, you can’t win gold medals that aren’t available. It’s also notable that the careers of the two fastest Americans in history, Gatlin (9.74) and Tyson Gay (9.69), overlapped significantly with Bolt’s. (Any tears shed here can also be wiped away by the thunderous truth that both Gatlin and Gay served doping suspensions and are both remembered with equal parts disgust and respect in Track World. They just are.
Bolt’s retirement after essentially falling apart at the 2017 world championships (his entire career was a dance with the quirks of a body that could do remarkable things, but wasn’t necessarily meant to do them for long), opened a window that had long been closed. It’s perilous to assume that the U.S. would just default into those medals, because so much has changed since the peak of American spring power. Caribbean nations – Bolt’s Jamaica most of all – have become contenders for medals at all global championships, not infrequently with athletes who trained at U.S. colleges or under U.S. coaches. (De Grasse covers both angles on this: His parents are from Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados, and he went to USC).
Nevertheless, Christian Coleman of the U.S. won the 100 meters at the 2019 worlds on Doha, in 9.76 seconds, by the Bolt-like margin of .13 seconds over Gatlin and .14 over De Grasse, Later in that meet, Lyles won the 200 meters in 19.82, .12 ahead of De Grasse. Lyles also ran his 19.50 in that year, and it was the fastest time run since Bolt (19.32) and Blake (19.44) went 1-2 at the 2012 Olympics. They were dominant performances; Coleman and Lyles became favorites for Tokyo.
Things happened: Coleman was suspended for whereabouts failures that would keep him out of the Games. But, his place was assumed by Trayvon Bromell, who returned from terrible injuries to run 9.77 this spring, the fastest time in the world since Coleman’s 9.76 in Doha. Bromell backed that by dominating the U.S, Olympic Trials in 9.80.
More things happened. Bromell just didn’t run to his best in Tokyo, and was eliminated in the semifinals. Afterward Bromell tweeted: ``Lord knows how much I wanted to be in that final, BUT I walk away with a smile because I know I showed many that after 4 years out you can still fight and make dreams come true.’’ In the final, Fred Kerley won silver behind Texas-born Italian Jacobs’s 9.80 victory. The 26-year-old Jacobs ran a personal best in each of the three rounds of the Olympics, which is unusual. Kerley, a former 400-meter specialist, ran a personal best of 9.84 in the final, to win the silver medal.
The 200 seemed more likely to end the U.S. gold medal sprint drought, with Lyles as the favorite. But Lyles has openly described his struggles with mental health –before, during, and after the pandemic. Lyles is a delightful young guy: Expressive, welcoming, frank. But U.S. Track World in all its forms – media, fans, infrastructure – has tried to transform Lyles into the next Bolt, complete with pre- and post-race showmanship, which is fine, but never seemed a comfortable fit for Lyles, even when he was animatedly playing the part. Also: Bolt’s unique racing personality was just him, not a character he portrayed. It’s not easily duplicated. Just as risky was Team Lyles trying to make him a true 100-200 threat, which he could be (with a 100-meter best of 9.86 in 2019), but the chase adds workload and emotional stress.
Lyles finished only fifth in the 100 meters at the U.S. Trials, but won the 200 in 19.74. All good. In Tokyo, however, he decelerated too early in his 200 semifinal and finished only a narrow third, advancing to the final on time, which left him in the slightly disadvantageous Lane Three. He led the final into the stretch, but was passed by De Grasse and teammate Kenny Bednarek, both of whom ran personal bests (De Grasse 19.62 and Bednarek 19.68, to become the sixth-fastest American ever).
Lyles ran 19.74, the same as his winning time at the Trials; he has run faster eight times. His response was more distressing: Lyles called the performance “boring,” but wept while talking to reporters, and talked about through the tears about his brother, Josephus, who is a talented runner, not at the Olympic level, at least not in the United States. “You know I love my brother and it’s been really hard for him,’’ Lyles said., ``In 2012 my brother had the dream that he was going to come to the Olympics and I just tagged along for the ride.’’ Not for the first time at these Games, expectation seem to weigh unfairly on a U.S. athlete.
The other side: Lyles is only 24 years old, and there is another Olympics in just three years. Bromell is 26. Coleman is 25 and will be eligible next year. Erryion Knighton, who finished fourth in the 200 after breaking Bolt’s world junior record in Eugene, is only 17, with a year of high school left. There is plenty of talent wearing U.S.A. kits, as ever, some whose names we don’t even know yet.
But the world is and ever faster place and the path to the top of the medal stand is ever more rugged. The days of dominance are long gone, and future golds will be hard-won and cherished. Never again should they be taken for granted.