Noah Lyles and Shericka Jackson (© Getty Images)
With one cheeky finish line gesture, Noah Lyles directed global attention to the men’s 200m at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22.
As Lyles broke the tape at the US Championships, he appeared to be pointing at runner-up Erriyon Knighton, who had taken the early lead in the race. Lyles clocked 19.67 to Knighton’s equally speedy 19.69.
“I’m just here to have fun,” said Lyles, who will be seeking his second straight world title and 10th in the event for the US.
Knighton was not amused. The 18-year-old, who became the fourth-fastest man in history with a world-leading 19.49 in April, said: “The job’s not finished,” before stalking out of the post-race interview.
Lyles later took pains to say he was not singling out Knighton. “I’m pointing at all those people who kept doubting me, all year and all last year,” he said. “Everybody who keeps saying, ‘Oh, he’s out of the picture.’”
Lyles was determined to muscle back into the frame. He was also dealing with disappointment after coming home with the bronze medal from the Tokyo Olympics. “All I can think, is, ‘But I wanted to win,” Lyles said. “That’s the competitor in me.”
He said it’s always in the back of his mind that he’s only been beaten twice in 200m finals — at the Tokyo Olympics, where Canada’s Andre De Grasse claimed the gold and Kenny Bednarek of the US won the silver, and in Rome in June 2019, when he lost to Michael Norman, the US 400m specialist.
“I’m upset that it’s even been that many times,” said Lyles, who begins competition in Eugene on his 25th birthday. “I don’t want it to ever happen again. I’m going to keep working to make sure that nobody can ever hold a candle to me in the 200m.”
Knighton has been burning brightly since arriving on the world scene. The 18-year-old, who initially took up sprinting to become a better American football player, turned pro during high school. He lined up against professionals as if he belonged, refusing to be intimidated.
At the US Olympic Trials, Knighton won his heat and his semifinal — defeating Lyles in both. In the final, though, Lyles turned the tables, winning with a time of 19.74, while Bednarek was second in 19.78 and Knighton ran 19.84 for third.
As the youngest US track and field Olympian since 1964, Knighton finished fourth in his first Olympic final. He was dejected after the race, sitting quietly in a corner while he waited for his turn to be interviewed.
This season, he has raced only four 200m races — starting off with a bang with the 19.49 at the LSU Invitational on 30 April. Only Usain Bolt (19.19), Yohan Blake (19.26) and Michael Johnson (19.32) have run faster, and Knighton leap-frogged over Lyles, whose PB is 19.50.
Knighton then ran some 100m races, including a sixth-place finish at the Prefontaine Classic, and graduated from high school. In the three rounds of the US Championships, he won the first two races before losing to Lyles. “I just got out and he just came and got me,” Knighton said. “He got the better of me that race and that’s just it.”
For his first World Championships, Knighton said his goal was simply “to get on the podium.”
The first US sweep since 2005 could be on the cards. Thanks to Lyles’ wildcard as defending champion, the US has four competitors. Fred Kerley, the Olympic 100m silver medallist who has run 19.80, and Bednarek, who has clocked 19.87, round out the team. Bednarek edged Lyles’ younger brother Josephus, who posted a PB of 19.93.
Kenny Bednarek at the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 (© Getty Images)
The spoiler could be De Grasse, who is attempting to become the first Canadian to win the 200m world title, upgrading from his silver in 2019. In a season where he has returned after a foot injury and also contracted Covid-19, he has run only three 200m races, including a wind-aided 20.15 (2.1m/s) for fourth at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Doha. His fastest legal time is 20.38 at the Diamond League meeting in Paris. De Grasse will also contest the 100m.
The No.3 sprinter on the 200m list, Cuba’s Reynier Mena, whose 19.63 improved his PB by 0.41, will not compete as he goes through a change of allegiance process.
However, the 200m is known for universality — such as Turkey’s Ramil Guliyev winning in 2017 and Alex Quinonez of Ecuador claiming bronze in 2019 — and three other sprinters in the field have gone sub-20 this season. South Africa’s Luxolo Adams ran 19.82 to win in Paris. Liberia’s Joseph Fahnbulleh repeated as NCAA champion for the University of Florida in the 200m and has run 19.83, a time matched by Jereem Richards of Trinidad & Tobago.
Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson and Abby Steiner of the US have never raced each other on the track. Yet their performances on one special day — more than 5000 kilometres apart — make the women’s 200m one of the most anticipated showdowns of the World Athletics Championships Oregon22.
At the US Championships on 26 June, Steiner lowered her own world-leading time in the 200m from 21.80 to 21.77, moving into the top 20 all-time while winning her first national title.
Later that day Jackson, competing in the Jamaican Championships, roared to the third-fastest time in history, 21.55, slicing 0.26 off her PB. She had already claimed the 100m crown.
“Honestly, no! I did not expect to go this fast,” said Jackson, whose time is behind only her compatriot Elaine Thompson-Herah's 21.53 at the Tokyo Olympics and world record-holder Florence Griffith Joyner's 21.34 from 1988.
“I made so many mistakes in the race,” Jackson added. “I have probably two and a half weeks, so see how fast I can go.”
This is the first World Championships for Steiner, an NCAA champion for the University of Kentucky who missed the US Olympic Trials last year due to an achilles injury. Steiner, 22, has never competed outside the US. By coincidence, her first appearance in a USA uniform comes in the first outdoor World Championships on US soil.
Jackson is appearing in her fourth straight World Championships and is a veteran of two Olympic Games. However, this is her first half-lap at the World Championships. Jackson is a two-time bronze medallist in the 400m (2015 and 2019) and has won golds in the 4x100m and 4x400m, plus another bronze in the 4x400m.
At the Olympics, Jackson claimed bronze medals in the 400m (Rio 2016) and the 100m (Tokyo 2020), so the 200m would seem to be her sweet spot. However, a miscalculation in the heats of the 200m last summer in Tokyo was costly. Jackson eased up at the finish line, consequently missing the semifinal by 0.004.
Don’t expect Jackson, who turns 28 on the day she begins competition in the 100m, to make such a tactical mistake again. No Jamaican has won the 200m since Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in 2013. Steiner will be seeking the first US crown since Allyson Felix won her third straight gold in 2009.
The field is stocked with other contenders. Most notable are Jackson’s formidable teammates: Thompson-Herah, the two-time Olympic champion in the 100m and 200m who ran a season's best 22.05 at the national championship, and Fraser-Pryce, who qualified with a season's best 22.14. In addition to her 200m title from Moscow, Fraser-Pryce is the 2012 Olympic silver medallist at that distance as well as four-time world champion in the 100m, going for a record fifth.
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce collecting her fourth world 100m title in Doha (© Getty Images)
Thompson-Herah, who will also race the 100m, has never won an individual world title. Her highest finish was 2015 when she took silver in the 200m. After finishing fourth in the 100m in 2019, Thompson-Herah withdrew from the 200m prior to the semifinals due to a lingering achilles injury.
Steiner’s teammates are also podium contenders. Tamara Clark, who placed fourth at the US Olympic Trials with a PB of 21.98 last year, was determined to qualify for this team. She posted another PB of 21.92. “Timing is everything,” Clark said.
The hometown edge goes to former University of Oregon sprinter Jenna Prandini, who made her first US world team since 2015 by placing third in 22.01.
Favour Ofili of Nigeria, the only athlete in the field who has beaten Steiner — at the SEC Championships — is also the only other athlete in the field who has gone sub-20. She clocked 21.98 in April. The 19-year-old is the All-African Games silver medallist and African record-holder in the 200m.
Defending champion and British record-holder Dina Asher-Smith has raced only three 200m events this year with a best of 22.27 at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Rome. Mujinga Kambundji of Switzerland, who took home bronze in 2019, has run 22.18, while Marie Josee Ta Lou of Ivory Coast and Shaunae Miller-Uibo of The Bahamas, the silver and bronze medallists from 2017, are also in the mix.
Olympic silver medallist Christine Mboma of Namibia, who clocked 21.87 in late April, is out with an injury. Bronze medallist Gabby Thomas struggled with a hamstring issue at the US Championships, placing eighth, but was named to the 4x100m pool.
Karen Rosen for World Athletics