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TOKYO — Two years after winning a world championship, months after getting off antidepressants, a half hour after winning bronze in the Olympic men’s 200-meter dash, and minutes after calling that medal “boring” because he came here to win, Noah Lyles burst into tears. He was thinking of a sprinter who isn’t even here.
“You know, I love my brother and it's been really hard for him,” Lyles said of his brother Josephus, who lives with him in Florida. “Watching him train as hard as he has …”
“I’m sorry …”
The tears were outrunning the words now. But Lyles chased them down.
“I thank God every day that I'm able to come out here … I feel like this wasn't even my dream,” he said. “In 2012, my brother had the dream that he was gonna come to the Olympics, and I really just tagged along for the ride. And sometimes I think to myself, you know, ‘This should be him.’ I’d be O.K.”
Olympic sprints make unfair requests. Compress your life’s work into 10 or 20 seconds. Summon the emotions that help you and ignore the feelings that don’t. It’s a lot to ask of even the most low-key personality, and Lyles is far from low-key. He can come off as brash, but he is really just highly emotional.
Like almost every athlete here, Lyles is alone at the end of a journey. Josephus, who has battled injuries in recent years, fell short of making the Olympic team at U.S. trials in June. But as you think about Noah tagging along for the ride, you should know that in 2017, Josephus said, “The only reason I run track is because of Noah, honestly.” The story Noah told of their relationship Wednesday night was not really a story at all. It was a snippet—a feeling at the end of a wrenching night, week and year.
The 200 is not even a 20-second race—Canada’s Andre De Grasse won it in 19.62. American Ken Bednarek won silver in 19.68. Lyles’s bronze-winning time was 19.74. The margin for error is small, of course, but it’s not just a 20-second-race; it is years in the making. It can put anyone on edge.
As the cluster of runners approached the finish line, De Grasse did not just have a gold medal in his sights; he had a silver in his past. He finished second in Rio.
Bednarek did not just have a dream in mind. He had doubts that fueled him—legitimate doubts, not the kind athletes often manufacture. Both Lyles brothers turned pro out of high school. Bednarek went to Indian Hills, a community college in Iowa, and he said, “I felt like I was a little bit overlooked. I was running fast times in college.”
In fourth place was American high schooler Erriyon Knighton, who looks like the sport’s next superstar and has no interest in the word “next.” There was a lot of preening before the race, as there is before almost every big sprint, but Knighton waved and clapped and didn’t do much else.
Knighton looked the least impressed with himself. In fact, he is so young that he has had no chance to develop perspective. He has finished three years of high school and finished fourth in the Olympics, and in his mind, that’s a disappointment. Winning, he said, was the goal—“always, from the beginning of the year.”
And then there was Lyles. He has tried to manage so much, from depression to stardom to expectations that he might be the sprinting successor to Usain Bolt, and then there were the actual mechanics of running.
He said Wednesday night what seemed apparent at trials, when he failed to qualify for the team in the 100: His aspirations were more than he was ready to handle. The 100/200 double sounds hard and is actually harder. The 100 is a power sprint, straight ahead; the 200 is more graceful and requires a turn. Lyles said, “We did a lot of 100 [training] this year. And maybe that didn't work out so much because over the other years we did a lot of 200 with a little bit 100.”
If Lyles had focused exclusively on the 200 in the past 18 months, maybe he would have won gold here. There is no way to know. But there was no way to know at the start of 2020 how much would weigh on him by the time of the 200 final: a pandemic, a delayed Olympics, a spotlight on police brutality, Zoloft, Josephus not making the team, Noah not making it in the 100, his family not being able to join him in Tokyo.
He just had to prepare for a 20-second race. Right.
Americans finished 2-3-4 in the 200, yet one of the questions for Lyles afterward was whether American sprinting is somehow in bad shape because the U.S. has not won the 100 or 200 at the Olympics lately. Lyles dismissed the notion. Sometimes we act like the medal podium represents the entirety of a sport’s existence. But Noah Lyles finished third in the world Wednesday night. If he needs a reminder of how impressive that is, he can get it from Josephus.
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