EUGENE, Ore. – Noah Lyles looked to his right and saw no one. He glanced over again, and still seeing nobody there, gave a playful wag of the finger to the six stragglers behind him.
All part of the fun — remember that word? — and part of the show delivered by America’s most engaging sprinter Monday, which happened to be both Lyles’ 25th birthday and opening night in his signature race, the 200 meters, at the world championships.
Lyles, who ran his heat in 19.98 seconds, was part of a cavalcade of the world’s best sprinters — including 100 champions Fred Kerley and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Elaine Thompson-Herah and 18-year-old Erriyon Knighton — who cruised through the first heats of the 200 without much fuss.
“A totally different vibe,” Lyles called racing in 2022, now that fans have returned to stadiums that were largely empty for two years during the COVID-19 pandemic. “If anything, it makes it more fun. I’ve been able to come out here and, I feel like, be the most ‘me’ I’ve been in years.”
Whether that rediscovery helps him win gold, silver, bronze, or nothing at all, Lyles said he likes this sport again. The finals are Thursday. But earlier on his birthday, Lyles, who is as open about his mental-health struggles and social issues confronting the world as he is about sprinting, put things in perspective on social media.
“By this time in a Black man’s life, we are either put in jail for life, killed in gang-related events, or killed just for the color of our skin,” Lyles tweeted. “So when I say glad I made it to 25 I mean it!!!”
Lyles wasn’t the only one celebrating a milestone on yet another clear, cool night for racing in Eugene, where the stands were about three-quarters full.
Belgium’s Nafissatou Thiam ran the final event of the heptathlon, the 800 meters, in 2 minutes, 13 seconds to rally past Anouk Vetter of the Netherlands for her second world championship, which goes with two Olympic titles.
American NCAA champion Anna Hall won the 800 in 2:06.67 to hang onto third place overall.
“I was hoping to come out with a PR (personal record) and to prove to myself that I belong here and I can succeed here,” Hall said. “So to come away with a really big score and a medal is more than I could ask for.”
In triple jump, world record holder Yulimar Rojas of Venezuela romped to her third world title with a leap of 15.47 meters (50 feet, 9 inches) for a margin of .58 (1 foot, 10 inches) over Jamaica’s Shanieka Ricketts. Tori Franklin took bronze to bring the U.S. medal count up to 16 after four days of action.
In men’s steeplechase, Morocco’s Soufiane El Bakkali won pulling away to add a world gold to the gold he took in Tokyo last year.
Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon won her second world title at 1,500 meters in a time of 3 minutes, 52.96 seconds. She also has two Olympic titles.
In the high jump, a rematch of last year’s exciting Olympic tie between Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy resulted in less drama, but another title for Barshim.
The “Qatari Falcon,” flapped his arms to celebrate after clearing 2.35 meters (7-8 1/2) on his first attempt, but was more subdued when he cleared 2.37 (7-9). Tamberi missed all three attempts at the lower distance and ended up fourth. Barshim now has three world championships, including the one he won in front of the home crowd in Doha three years ago.
Out on the road earlier in the day, Gotytom Gebreslase made it an Ethiopian gold-medal sweep in the marathons. After running at the elbow of Judith Jeptum Korir for miles, Gebreslase motored past her late and won by nine seconds in a championship-record time of 2 hours, 18 minutes, 11 seconds.
Back in the stadium, Lyles was the only man to break 20 seconds on a no-stress night in the 200. His main competition this week could come from top-ranked teammate Kenny Bednarek or from Kerley. Also, Knighton, whose 20.01 tied for the second-best time of the night.
Last month at national championships, Lyles beat Knighton to the line and wagged his finger there, too. Knighton didn’t seem to like it, though both he and Lyles were putting it in the past.
“It’s real chill,” Knighton said. “There’s no beef or nothing. At the end of the day, it’s just a sport.”
It’s also entertainment, and Lyles is a big believer that entertainers like him need a crowd to be at their best.
That could help explain why the last two years have been so rough. The COVID-19 pandemic hit Lyles as hard as any athlete. Competing in empty stadiums and in cities with no friends, family and coaches to support him made things tough.
The man some thought might win Olympic gold in one, two or three events ended up with a bronze in the 200.
The results this week — who knows? But now that the fans are back, Lyles is having fun again. He was inspired earlier this year by a tweet from sprint great Michael Johnson.
“He was like ‘People don’t go to races to watch people run. They go to watch because they enjoy watching them run,’” Lyles said. “And I definitely felt like that spoke to me. I was like, ‘You know what, I might not be the best person here, but I’m definitely the person that people want to see.’”
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