Better than Bolt? Noah Lyles isn’t yet, but he’s more entertaining

U.S. sprint star Noah Lyles

What will happen to track & field without Usain Bolt?

Remember that?

The wails following the end of the 2017 World Championships have been replaced with a legion of new stars – even in Bolt’s own events – that can continue the party.

Thursday’s IAAF Diamond League Final in Zurich’s Letzigrund Stadium will showcase one of them who has surpassed Bolt’s achievements at the same age: American Noah Lyles.

He’s fast, he’s fun and he’s undefeated in the 200 m and will run for his second straight Diamond League title in the event as the favorite and world-leader in the event at 19.65 … at 21 years old. He hasn’t lost a 200 m outdoor race since 2016 and can finish one of the best 200 m seasons in history with a win on Thursday. In 2018:

04 May: 19.83 1st Diamond League/Doha
26 May: 19.69 1st Diamond League/Eugene
05 July: 19.69 1st Diamond League/Lausanne
20 July: 19.65 1st Diamond League/Monaco

Four races, four wins, four sub-20 performances. And if he can win and run 19-something this week, who else has run five sub-20s in a single season?

Not many. The list looks like this for sub-20 200 m races in one season (includes heats):

7 Frankie Fredericks (NAM) in 1996, plus an eighth indoors
6 Usain Bolt (JAM) in 2008
6 Justin Gatlin (USA) in 2015
6 Wallace Spearmon (USA) in 2007
6 Spearmon in 2010
5 Michael Johnson (USA) in 1996
5 Spearmon in 2006

So Lyles could join Johnson and Spearmon with five in a season and become just the sixth man in history with 5+ sub-20s in one year. Not bad for 21, and his 19.65 best already ranks him ahead of Fredericks (19.68 ‘96) on the all-time list and equal with Spearmon (19.65 ‘06).

And it has been noted that Bolt, considered a 200 m specialist as a junior, and Lyles have similar progressions at 200 m:

16 2013: 21.28
17 2014: 20.71
18 2015: 20.18
19 2016: 20.09
20 2017: 19.90
21 2018: 19.65

16 2002: 20.58
17 2003: 20.13
18 2004: 19.93
19 2005: 19.99
20 2006: 19.88
21 2007: 19.75

Of course, Bolt exploded in 2008 with world records of 9.69 and 19.30 in the Beijing Olympic Games and we’re still a ways off from Tokyo in 2020. In the 100 m, Lyles’ 9.88 at age 21 is better than Bolt’s 10.03 in 2007, a year in which he only ran the distance once.

(Lyles has been named to the Americas team for the IAAF Continental Cup in September in the 100 m, but not in the 200, since he did not win that event at the USATF Nationals.)

Those are the stats and Lyles’ future is bright. But his personality is even brighter and this is where he has a chance to even eclipse Bolt as his career progresses.

If he wins, he dances. He does back flips. He has a smile that lights up a stadium, thanks to today’s massive video boards. He’s gracious, fun and personable. At the news conference for the Diamond League meet in Birmingham (GBR), he told reporters, “I want to find my own way; I want to transcend the sport also and find new ways to get fans interactive.”

Asked if he could rap freestyle, he thought for all of four seconds and came back with – in part:

I’m a sight for sore eyes
I’m a man with little time
The future’s so bright, I make your eyes go blind
But I’m quicker than you think, so don’t blink
Or you’ll find yourself in the upside down, like an unfunny clown

By contrast, Bolt was thoughtful and somber at the start, but grew into his role as a global superstar. Lyles is already there.

And it hasn’t all been fun: he came back from a right leg hamstring tear in 2017, taking off three months to heal and then won the Diamond League crown from lane nine in 20.00 in Brussels. He’s learning to be a professional fast, as an athlete and – just as important today – as an entertainer.

Rich Perelman