Noah Lyles and Shaunae Miller-Uibo in action in the 200m (© AFP / Getty Images)
For the first time since 2004, the men’s Olympic 200m title will be awarded to someone not named ‘Usain Bolt’.
Following the Jamaican legend’s retirement in 2017, USA’s Noah Lyles has stepped up as the man to beat over the half-lap distance. As a teenager in 2016, Lyles narrowly missed out on making the US Olympic team after finishing fourth at the US Trials. Injury ruled him out of the 2017 US Championships, meaning he also missed the World Championships that year. But he rebounded later in the season to take the Diamond trophy.
He established himself as the world’s No.1 200m sprinter in 2018, winning all of his races over the distance and notching up a series of sub-19.7 times. He continued his streak of sub-20-second finals in 2019, setting a PB of 19.50 in Lausanne and then winning the world title in Doha.
While he hasn’t been quite as dominant this season, Lyles heads to Tokyo undefeated in finals in 2021. In fact, his last defeat in a 200m final came at the hands of Michael Norman at the Diamond League meeting in Rome in June 2019. He tops the world list with the 19.74 he ran to win the US Trials, but says that, based on the work he’s put in this past year, he feels a big performance is just around the corner.
The last time USA won this event – back in 2004 – was also the last time they swept the medals. The same could happen again in Tokyo.
Kenny Bednarek has pushed Lyles close this year, finishing just 0.04 adrift in both of their 200m clashes. The 22-year-old, who first came to prominence in 2019 when running a wind-assisted 19.49, is one of the few men in history to have broken 10 seconds for 100m, 20 seconds for 200m and 45 seconds for 400m.
Bednarek pulled up with a slight injury in the heats of the 2019 World Championships, but will have high hopes for Tokyo after showing that he’s in the form of his life with his 19.78 PB at the US Trials. A fast starter, expect him to have a slight lead on the fast-finishing Lyles at the half-way point.
As exciting as the Lyles-Bednarek clash was in Eugene last month, Erriyon Knighton was talk of the Trials in this event. The 17-year-old set a world U18 best of 20.04 in the heats, a world U20 record of 19.88 in the semifinal and then improved on it in the final with 19.84 to finish third, securing his place in Tokyo.
He also held his own on his first overseas outing just nine days later, finishing third in a close race in Szekesfehervar, beating many other sprinters who’ll be heading to the Games. If he makes the top three in Tokyo, he’ll become the youngest ever medallist in a men’s athletics event (not including discontinued disciplines).
But while the US trio are the fastest entrants, they’re not the only medal contenders.
Liberia’s Joe Fahnbulleh has impressed on the collegiate circuit this year and stormed to the 200m title at the NCAA Championships. The long-striding teenager produced a stunning late-race charge to win in a PB of 19.91.
He hasn’t raced since then, but maybe the rest following his busy collegiate season will work in his favour.
Canada’s Andre De Grasse will no doubt be in the mix. A consistent performer, he claimed 100m bronze and 200m silver at the 2016 Olympics and 2019 World Championships. He set his 200m PB of 19.80 in Rio five years ago and has come close to it already this year with 19.89.
South Africa’s Shaun Maswanganyi, Trinidad & Tobago’s 2017 world bronze medallist Jereem Richards and 200m stalwart Alonso Edward of Panama have all been knocking on the door of the 20-second barrier this year and could be a factor through the rounds.
World 400m champion Steven Gardiner is also entered, though he’ll face a punishing schedule if he decides to double up. The first two rounds of the 400m are on 1 and 2 August, the heats and semifinals of the 200m are on 3 August with the final one day later, then the 400m final is set for 5 August. The Bahamian may leave it to the last minute to decide whether to line up for the 200m.
Yohan Blake, the second-fastest man in history, features on the Jamaican team. He has doubled up at the past three global championships, but has fared better in the 100m, missing out on the 200m final in Rio, London and Doha.
Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics
For the first time in history, six women have stormed under 22 seconds for 200m in the same year. Before 2021, the previous all-time record had been five, back in 1988, and such is the standard that one of this year’s six – Tamara Clark – missed out on an Olympic 200m place despite running a 21.98 PB at the US trials. That time saw her finish fourth in just the second-ever race where four women went sub-22.00. The first was the 1988 Olympic final.
Going by the entry list, that stat doesn’t look likely to last past Tokyo. The field is stacked.
First, a look at the five entered 2021 sub-22 women. The list is topped by the USA’s Gabby Thomas, who set a world lead in each round at the US Olympic Trials, eventually improving to a remarkable 21.61 to become the second-fastest ever and secure her debut Olympic spot.
“I am still in shock,” the 24-year-old said afterwards. “I can't believe I put up that time. I just want more from myself. My dream was to make the Olympic team. I am just going to set higher goals.”
Second quickest this year is Jamaican sprint great Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who returns to global championship 200m action for the first time since 2013, when she won one of the nine world titles she now has to her name. Since then, she has also claimed a second Olympic 100m title, become a mother and got even quicker – her 21.79 to win the Jamaican Championships improving on her previous best of 22.09 from the 2012 Olympics.
Next is Fraser-Pryce’s Jamaican teammate, Shericka Jackson. The Olympic and world 400m medallist is concentrating on the shorter sprints this year and like Fraser-Pryce is set to double up in the 100m and 200m in Tokyo. In the longer event she has run 21.82 which placed her second at the Jamaican Championships.
Jenna Prandini, the 2015 NCAA champion and world 4x100m medallist, and Anavia Battle are fourth and fifth on this season’s 200m list, having run PBs of 21.89 and 21.95 to finish second and third respectively behind Thomas at the US trials.
But the quality doesn’t end there. Just off that sub-22 season list is a trio filled with talent – Jamaica’s reigning Olympic champion Elaine Thompson-Herah, Britain’s world 200m champion Dina Asher-Smith and Bahamian Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo, who have all gone well under 22 seconds in the past few years and clearly know how to time their peaks to perfection.
Thompson-Herah is the third member of Jamaica’s team doubling up in the women’s 100m and 200m in Tokyo, five years after she became the first woman in 28 years to complete the Olympic sprint double in Rio. She was third at the Jamaican Championships but won her last race before the Olympics – the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Gateshead.
British record-holder (21.88) Asher-Smith – who finished fifth in the 200m in Rio five years ago – restricted her racing in 2020 to just three low-key 150m outings but is unbeaten this year, with one of her two 200m wins coming at the Diamond League in Florence where she ran 22.06.
While a number of athletes – including Asher-Smith – are targeting a 100m and 200m double, two – Miller-Uibo and Ireland’s Phil Healy – are entered for both the 200m and 400m. The 200m is Miller-Uibo’s focus, however, and after finishing second behind Jackson in Szekesfehervar earlier this month – her first loss over the distance since the 2017 World Championships – the 27-year-old rebounded to win the Monaco Diamond League, her last race before the Olympics. She also ran 22.03 in Florida in April and is relishing the current high standard of the event.
“The girls out there are running great times at the minute but there is nothing I love more than great competition,” said the 2017 world 200m bronze medallist. “The current level we see out there is very motivating and I am very happy to see women on top of the sport now and making the headlines.”
Given Miller-Uibo’s achievements and experience, she will be a favourite to lead those headlines from Tokyo as she hunts for a second Olympic title following her 400m success in Rio five years ago.
Also among the entries are the Netherlands’ two-time world gold medallist Dafne Schippers, Nigeria’s 2013 world medallist Blessing Okagbare, Switzerland’s 2019 world bronze medallist Mujinga Kambundji, Ivory Coast’s multiple world medallist Marie-Josee Ta Lou and world sixth-placer Gina Bass, who could become the first Gambian sportsperson to reach an Olympic final.
Jess Whittington for World Athletics