BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — The American men who had won the 100 meters, 200 meters and 4x100 relay at world championships before this year are known to track fans: Tyson Gay and Maurice Greene.
But some of the American men who have gone 3 for 3 in those races at the Olympics are known far beyond the shadow of any track stadium – think, Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis.
The sizable gap between “track star” and “global icon” is the one Noah Lyles is hoping he can bridge between now and next year at the Paris Olympics.
Lyles capped off his own historic world championships by anchoring the men’s 4x100 relay team to victory Saturday night to capture his third gold medal in the sprints, joining Gay and Greene, but also track's last true superstar, Jamaica's Usain Bolt, who last accomplished that feat eight years ago.
Lyles made no secret that he would like to fill the void left by Bolt – a once-in-a-generation character who transcends sports and stands out as much on red carpets as on the track. Lyles also confronted the uncomfortable truth that since Bolt retired in 2017, his sport has struggled to maintain an audience outside the hardcore track fan.
“It's a conversation I have every day with my agent, about how we're going to better this sport,” Lyles said.
It’s a plight felt most keenly in the United States, which is now only five years from hosting the Olympics in Los Angeles. In one sign of the hurdles the sport faces, track and field has yet to find a viable host city for a major event — i.e., Olympic trials, national championships or worlds – outside of Eugene, Oregon.
Much has been made in the States this summer about how nationals and even some of these world championships have been aired on NBC’s harder-to-find cable affiliates instead of the main network. That might not matter anymore in an era of ever-fragmented viewing options.
Still, the numbers tell the story: The opening two days of world championships on the main network drew fewer viewers than preseason football, NASCAR, the final of the Women’s World Cup (airing at 6 a.m. EDT), and a Little League World Series Game. (But more than bull riding and a USA-Germany tune-up game for the basketball World Cup.)
Last year at the worlds in Eugene, World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said the organization’s goal was to make track a “top four” sport in the U.S. by 2028, which means it would have to rise by at least four notches, according to WA’s own studies.
“If you ask me, are we in better shape to promote the sport than we were just a few years ago, my answer is, unequivocally, ‘Yes,’” Coe said in an interview, one year later, before the start of the championships in Budapest.
Some of that has to do with Lyles, the 26-year-old from Florida who has no problem positioning himself as the man trying to turn track into a must-watch proposition again. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes one person a can’t-miss TV product while others miss the mark. But if Lyles falls short, it won’t be for lack of effort.
He is currently featured in two behind-the-scenes docuseries about track — one that was his own brainchild, and another that began as a cobbling together of the world’s fastest people.
“They weren't talking about me in that documentary,” Lyles said of the second one. “Then, as soon as I won (a Diamond League meet) in Paris, they got real buddy-buddy with me.”
He is curating a fashion sense, doing everything from picking the wardrobes to setting up the photo shoots for himself and other runners. He says he wants people to look for him in GQ as much as on the track.
“I want people to say ‘Wow, this isn't just a fast guy, he's well-rounded and has a good personality and I just want to follow him for that,'” Lyles said.
He is a growing presence on social media, though his most-celebrated posting there this summer had nothing to do with wardrobes or music or red carpets. It was a declaration that he can run 9.65 in the 100 and 19.10 in the 200.
That he accomplished neither goal in Budapest is beside the point. That he put those numbers out there – the 9.65 would be the third-fastest of all-time and the 19.10 would shatter Bolt’s 14-year-old world record – is what set the stage for his triumphant run through the championships.
The 100-meter goal was audacious, given that Lyles had a thin resume at the shorter distance. When he won the title, he crossed the line and shouted out what could very well be his mantra over the upcoming year, at least in that race: “They said I couldn’t do it. They said I wasn’t the one. But I thank God I am!”
Six nights later, as he crossed the finish line first in the relay, he kept the messaging down to one word, as he jabbed three fingers into the air: “Three!” he shouted.
He is savvy enough to know that if any of the off-the-track fame is going to come, taking care of business on the track has to be a given. So far, he's making good on that part of the deal.
“Yes, the medals are first, because if you don't have the medals, who's going to want to pay attention to you?” Lyles said. “Then, after you get the medals, you get the times and more and more people gain interest, and then you can go out and start going in different directions.”
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