ATHLETICS Preview: Famed Golden Gala meet in Rome features Noah Lyles vs. Michael Norman in sensational 200 m

U.S. sprint star Noah Lyles

The IAAF Diamond League meet in Rome is known as the Golden Gala Pietro Mennea, named for the Italian 200 m star of the 1970s, who held the world record at 19.72 from 1979 into 1996 and was the Olympic gold medalist in 1980.

So it’s fitting that the race of the meet on Thursday will be the men’s 200 m, where American Noah Lyles will make his season debut, after running 19.65 last season – no. 8 all-time – and winning the Shanghai Diamond League 100 m with a screaming finish over Christian Coleman, as both were timed in 9.86.

But Lyles won’t be alone, as 400 m star Michael Norman – no. 4 all-time in that event, at 43.45 at the Mt. SAC Relays – will be trying to improve on his 200 m best of 19.84, running in both 2018 and 2019.

Yes, Turkey’s reigning World Champion Ramil Guliyev is also running and hopefully in better health than in Stockholm, where he was unable to compete well, but the question has to be Lyles or Norman?

They met once last year, at the Athleissima meet in Lausanne (SUI), with Lyles winning a tight battle in 19.69, to 19.88 for Norman. Lyles also beat Norman in U.S. nationals races in 2015 (U.s. Junior Champs) and at the 2016 Olympic Trials (fourth and fifth place).

The ghost of Mennea will be present – he passed away in 2013 after battling cancer – and a nice crowd should be on hand for an excellent meet. Some of the expected highlight events:

Men/800 m: Am amazing 11 runners have already reached the 1:44s so early this season and four are in this race: world leader Nijel Amos (BOT: 1:44.29), no. 2 Abubaker Abdalla (QAT: 1:44.33), plus Donavan Brazier of the U.S. (1:44.70) and Kenya’s Jonathan Kitilit. Add in six more with lifetime bests in the 1:42s or 1:43s and this should be a fabulous race. Look out for Poland’s Adam Kszczot (1:45.60 this year) and American Clayton Murphy (1:46.10) as possible challengers to the 1:44 boys.

Men/5,000 m: Although the Diamond League meets are supposed to run 3,000 m races at the max, here’s another 5,000 m, as at Shanghai. The nos. 2-3-4 finishers are back for more in Rome: Selemon Barega (ETH: 13:04.71), Hagos Gebrhiwet (ETH: 13:04.83) and Birhanu Balew (BRN: 13:05.04). There are plenty of other quality runners, but will they be willing to start on a hard pace, as Kenya’s Rhonex Kipruto did so bravely in Stockholm on the way to a 26:50.16 shocker in the 10,000 m?

Men/400 m hurdles: No Abderrahmane Samba of Qatar, but American Rai Benjamin leads a very good field, opposing Thomas Barr (IRL: 47.97 ‘16), Americans Kenny Selmon (48.12 ‘18) and David Kendziera (48.42 ‘18) and Estonia’s Rasmus Magi (48.40 ‘16).

Men/Triple Jump: World leader Omar Craddock of the U.S. (17.68 m/58-0 1/4) leads this field, but everyone will be watching Portugal’s Pedro Pablo Pichardo as he makes his seasonal debut. He’s jumped 17.60 m (57-9) or better every year for the last five seasons! Pichardo’s last appearance in Rome resulted in a Diamond League win in 2015 in an impressive 17.94 m (58-10 1/4)!

Women/100 m: Look for the season debuts of Dina Asher-Smith (GBR: 10.85 lifetime best, in 2018), Shania Collins (USA: 10.98 ‘18), English Gardner (USA: 10.74 ‘16) and Marie-Josee Ta Lou (CIV: 10.85 ‘18). Jamaica’s 2016 Rio champ Elaine Thompson (11.09 this season), will challenge, as well as Aleia Hobbs of the U.S. (11.03) and Jenna Prandini (11.10). Gardner made a nice comeback from leg surgery in February with a 7.10 60 m win (and PR) at the Millrose Games, but hasn’t run a 100 m since September of last year.

Women/1,500 m: Not that often that seven sub-4 women are in the same race, but here they are, including 2011 World Champion Jenny Simpson (USA), 2015 World Champion Genzebe Dibaba (ETH), 2019 world leader Gudaf Tsegay (ETH: 3:59.57) and more. Can any of them handle Britain’s Laura Muir, who was dominant in winning the Stockholm 1,500 in 4:05.37 in polar conditions. It’s her second career appearance in Rome, finishing fourth in the 2015 Golden Gala in 2015.

Women/400 m hurdles: Rio Olympic champ Dalilah Muhammad of the U.S. got out like a shot in the Doha Diamond League opener and ran away to a world-leading 53.61 and no one else has been close. This race has plenty of challengers, including 2013-15 World Champion Zuzana Hejnova (CZE), reigning World Champion Kori Carter of the U.S., American national champion Shamier Little, Commonwealth Games champ Janieve Russell (JAM) and more. Look for Muhammad to take it out hard again and force the others to try and catch her.

Women/Pole Vault: All of the usual suspects are here: Greece’s Olympic champion, Katerina Stefanidi, 2012 Olympic Champion Jenn Suhr of the U.S., 2018 World Indoor Champion Sandi Morris (USA) and back-to-back U.S. indoor champ Katie Nageotte. Suhr is still the world leader from her 4.91 m (16-1 1/4) clearance at the Texas Relays in March!

Women/Long Jump: The world leader is Chantal Malone (IVB), with her 6.90 m (22-7 3/4) winner in late April, but American Brittney Reese showed she is interested in a fifth world title with a wind-aided 7.01 m (23-0w) jump a week ago at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. Both will have to contend with Serbia’s 2018 World Indoor Champion, Ivana Spanovic, who will make her outdoor debut, and 2018 World Cup long jump titlist Caterine Ibarguen (COL) of triple jump fame.

Women/Javelin: The top seven on the 2019 world list are in, led by China’s Huihui Lyu at 67.72 m (222-2), but the question is what will Czech star – and two-time Olympic and three-time World Champion – Barbora Spotakova do?

Now 37, she took 2018 off for maternity (her second child) and has thrown once so far this season, a 63.85 m (209-5) win on 23 May, placing her ninth on the 2019 list. Is she in shape to do more? Much more?

There are several other events on the program of lesser quality, you can find the complete line-up here.

NBCSN has live coverage from Rome on Thursday at 2 p.m. Eastern time.