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Track And Field

American Track Now Has Its Most Electric Sprinters In Years

Sha'Carri Richardson celebrates her 100-meter final win at the 2023 track and field world championships.
Wang Lili/Xinhua via Getty Images

Usain Bolt wouldn’t be Usain Bolt if he were easily replaceable. Since his retirement in 2017, track and field has had a Bolt-sized void in it. Even as true GOATs have blossomed in several other disciplines—so many at once that it’s verging on a golden era—the sport has suffered. There’s just no replacing a charismatic, iron-fisted ruler of the men’s 100 meters.

Bolt himself knows this. When American sprinter Noah Lyles visited Bolt’s Jamaica for a meet in June, documentary cameras following Lyles around caught Bolt whispering something into Lyles’s ear.

“Keep that same attitude, brother,” Bolt said. “The sport needs that shit. We need a personality.”

That personality might finally be here. Lyles has always had spectacular ability. The summer after he graduated from high school in 2016, Lyles ran 20.09 for 200 meters, then a stunning time for a teenager, to finish fourth at the U.S. Olympic Trials. In the years since, he’s become arguably the best 200-meter runner ever not named Bolt, winning two world titles and running 19.31 to set an American record. Only Bolt and fellow Jamaican Yohan Blake (who won his only global title in any event when Bolt false started) have ever run faster.

And he’s always been a Bolt-esque performer, from his pre-race outfits to his anime-based celebrations. Lyles has struggled at times, even wilting occasionally, but he’s always openly embraced the ludicrously impossible task of replacing Bolt. In 2019, before he had ever won a world title, he told the Washington Post he was fine with the “target on his back” that he earned with nonstop pre-race proclamations. Explicitly invoking Bolt, he said he wanted to “transcend the sport.”

The one thing missing has been relevance in the 100 meters, the one sprint—arguably the one track and field event—that really matters. As Lyles lusted for fame and took over the 200 meters, quieter Americans dominated the 100. The extremely low-key Christian Coleman won it at worlds in 2019—and was promptly banned from the sport for 18 months for missing too many drug tests. Italian Marcell Jacobs stunned Fred Kerley to win gold in the 100 at the Tokyo Olympics; the less said about Jacobs’s fraudulent reign as the world’s fastest man, the better. The taciturn Kerley finally got his gold at worlds last summer; Kerley can occasionally be refreshingly blunt and hold his own at the podium, but he’ll never be confused for a Bolt or Lyles.

All this time, Lyles never even made an American team in the men’s 100. He was just seventh in a stacked final at the 2021 Olympic Trials and opted to focus on the 200 last year. He may finally have put it all together this year. He finished third—coming off COVID—in a bizarre U.S. final last month, a poor result by his standards but good enough to sneak on the 100 team for worlds in Budapest.

Kerley was bounced in the semifinals on Sunday, giving Lyles a golden opportunity, and he took advantage. He ran 9.87 in the semifinal, high-stepping and celebrating in the last 20 meters. If you squinted, it bore a passing resemblance to Bolt dusting the field and grinning in the semis at the 2016 Olympics.

A little under three hours later, Lyles had the title he wanted most. He didn’t start nearly as well in the final as he did in the semi, and he wasn’t nearly as dominant as a result, but his max speed is so good that it didn’t matter. He ran 9.83 to edge out the field and finally take over the world.

Lyles’ world championships aren’t done; he still has the 200 and 4x100 relay to run. Bolt was the last man to sweep the short sprints, back at the 2016 Olympics. But for Lyles, the hardest part of matching Bolt is over. 

Bolt is not the last person to sweep the 100 and 200 at a global championship. That would be Elaine Thompson-Herah, who did so in spectacular fashion at the Olympics in 2021. The women’s 100 meters has not lacked star power like the men’s has: Thompson-Herah and fellow Jamaicans Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Shericka Jackson are three of the fastest women ever, and easily the fastest of sprinting’s post-BALCO era. All the event was missing on the women’s side was a flamboyant, brash American, and she appeared to burst on the scene in 2021 in the person of Sha’Carri Richardson.

If you know one track and field narrative of the last few years, it’s probably Richardson’s. (Briefly: She destroyed the field at the Olympic Trials in 2021, was DQ’d for the crime of smoking weed, talked a ton of shit, and got blasted by the Jamaicans in her return later that summer.) Lyles is an entertainer, but the only American competing in Budapest who has already transcended the sport, as Lyles would put it, is Richardson. She’s a real-deal celebrity.

There are two important distinctions between Richardson and Lyles, other than the orders of magnitude separating their fame. The first is that while Lyles is an inveterate promoter, Richardson is an entertainer, but one largely uncomfortable with the mainstream media, sometimes accusing reporters of being disrespectful and refusing to speak with them for long stretches. The second distinction, relatedly, is that where Lyles was humbled by the last Olympic cycle, Richardson was utterly humiliated by it. Not only was her much-hyped comeback ugly in 2021, she completely bombed out of U.S nationals last year, failing to even make the final in either sprint.

After 2022, her career seemed like it might legitimately be on the brink. Richardson was too talented and too young to flame out entirely, but she might have been in danger of becoming a sideshow while the Jamaicans maintained a monopoly on the medals. Instead, all she did this year was become a powerhouse. She raced early and often, racking up wins at major meets and minor ones. By the time the world championships rolled around, she was clearly one of the favorites.

And then she got a horrendous start in her semifinal Monday, finishing third and only qualifying for the final on the basis of her time. Was she crumbling under pressure?

No. Just 75 minutes later, way out in lane nine, Richardson ran a championship record of 10.65 seconds to dethrone the Jamaicans. Fraser-Pryce and Jackson might literally not have seen her coming.

No woman had ever won a world title out of lane nine; no one had ever won a global title after making the final on time. But there’s never been anyone like Sha’Carri Richardson. She’s the rare track athlete big-time enough to embrace the villain role. Asked what she’d done differently in 2023, she partially credited “blocking out media like yourself, just moving forward”; check out the reaction from her occasional nemesis Fraser-Pryce to Richardson's left on the podium, at around 2:00 below:

Track athletes typically need, and seek, mainstream media coverage to break out of their little niche sport; Lyles, for example, participated in the filming of at least two documentaries this season. Richardson is so famous that she doesn’t need anyone’s help to become a star. She only needs to help herself on the track. On Monday night, she finally did just that.

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