The man who would be king is explaining why he is indifferent. Not so much to the hype, because he really quite enjoys it, but to the notion that all who follow must be compared to the chap who went before.
‘It’s always the same, isn’t it?’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘Why do I have to be the next him? People have to do better than asking about that every time. Me? I’m the current Noah Lyles.’
If folk don’t know Noah Lyles at this point, it is likely a consequence of the other guy’s abdication a couple of years back. When he left, that marvellous showman who will remain nameless for the majority of this conversation, most of the light went with him. Athletics has lingered in the shade ever since, waiting and wishing.
Noah Lyles is setting tongues wagging as he lights up athletics with his electric sprinting
Lyles has been in rampant form this season and is eyeing Olympic Gold in Tokyo next year
Lyles’s role in all that is to be the newest prince; the latest hope for a sport crying out for heroes. Of course, others have been stuffed into that gap — Andre de Grasse and Wayde van Niekerk, exceptional athletes with bad injuries.
Then there was Christian Coleman and whatever we might now think of him. He always had the speed to make us look but lacked the charisma for transcendence, which is why we then arrived at Lyles, and in turn that is why we must go back to Coleman, because Lyles is laughing about something. He has a story involving his fellow American and why they don’t get on. It reveals a bit about both men.
The yarn centres on Shanghai in May and the first Diamond League meeting of the year. Coleman, the fastest 100 metres runner in the world, was his usual picture of brooding focus on the line. Lyles, the back-flipping extrovert and 200-metre specialist, fired an imaginary gun at the camera, then beat Coleman at his own event.
Lyles recalls an incident with countryman Christian Coleman in Shanghai. The pair don’t get on
After winning, he glared at Coleman, who later wrote on social media: ‘If your goal is to run fast in May to taunt and flex online then your priorities aren’t straight.’ Most observers scratched their heads, but it turns out there was a little more to it.
‘My coach said he was shouting when we were warming up,’ Lyles says. ‘Then, when we got into the call room, everybody’s kind of quiet, you know, getting dialled in. I see him take off his headphones and then turn his music back on as loud as you can.
‘I’m just wondering, “Are you really just blasting music?” I feel that is kind of disrespectful. I didn’t say it. I just said, “I’m just gonna take all this and I’m gonna win this race”.
‘You know how I looked at him at the end of the race? I wasn’t planning on doing that until he played that music.’
Lyles described his struggles as a youngster to deal with the divorce of his parents
It’s not a story Lyles has shared before. Likewise, some of those he tells here about depression, bullies, divorce and the single occasion he met the man who casts the shadow. In all, he has quite a tale. And quite a character. And quite a talent. And he’s not afraid to talk up rivalries. And he’s probably everything the sport’s powerbrokers have been dreaming of.
But is Lyles, at 22, as good as he thinks he is? Can he be as good as the other guy, or better? Going into the World Championships, which begin in Doha on Friday, he fancies his chances of breaking the 200m world record. Can he be the athlete who finally brings the light back to his sport? He seems pretty confident about all that.
There was a conversation a few years back that sums up Noah Lyles’s belief in his own ability. It was 2016, around the time he came within 0.09sec of making the US Olympic team in the 200m while still in high school. The University of Florida wanted to recruit him and the expectation was that they would — no male American athlete is known to have skipped the college route before going pro.
‘I remember doing a home visit with the head coach about my goals and aspirations and I asked him a question. “When the world record got broken, the 100m at the Olympics in 2008, how old was that guy?” He looked at me and he said 22 or 23. And I was doing math in my head.
The American sprinter became the first person to win the 100m and 200m in the same season at the Diamond League
‘I said, “By the time the 2020 Olympics comes around, I’ll be 23. And I want to break the world record”. And he was like, “Well, you know, I did some calculations too…” and I’m just like, “That’s great, I don’t care about your calculations. I know what I can do. Do you want to go with me?” Of course, he said yes.
‘Well, later that year, some other people said yes to my goal and they got on-board, so, you know, I decided to go with adidas.’ Snubbing college to go pro at 19 was a risk but what has followed has been a success for both brand and man.
In some kind of order, taking in his previous couple of seasons as an amateur, he has won the 200m at the 2014 Youth Olympics and the 100m gold at the 2016 World Juniors, broken the indoor world record for 300m in 2017, and in each of 2017 and 2018 won the 200m Diamond League title.
Lyles’ outlandish personality could be what athletics needs to light up the sport again
Then, across eight days straddling August and September of this year, he won the 2019 Diamond League 100m and 200m titles — the only man to ever hold both in the same season.
Those feats are relative to the opposition, of course. His timings are relative to history, and that is where Lyles’s wider potential stands out — in running 19.50sec into a headwind in the 200m this year, he became the fourth quickest man ever at the distance, behind Michael Johnson, Yohan Blake and one other.
When he ran 19.65sec in Paris on August 24, breaking that one other man’s meeting record, he went on Instagram.
Lyles’s post read: ‘Bolt who?’
‘That wasn’t about disrespect,’ Lyles says. ‘I don’t have ill will towards him. It’s more like every time my name gets put into the mix, I got to hear his. So yeah, breaking that record was kind of a sign, like, it’s not Usain, it’s me.’
Lyles has been impressing with his fast times and is tipped to be the next big thing in sprinting
Folk in athletics have been desperate for someone like Lyles since Usain Bolt retired in 2017.
Aside from speaking his mind and winning races, Lyles does back-flips on the track, he modelled at Paris Fashion Week, he plans to release a rap album ahead of the Olympics, he has an easy manner and he makes people laugh.
Following this interview, most of which is spent with him reclined on a couch in Brussels, he turns what was meant to be a two-minute picture shoot into a lengthy session of leaps and jumps and grins around the room. Like Bolt, he is an extrovert; like Bolt, it doesn’t look contrived.
Except Lyles wasn’t always like this. The earlier years, split between Florida and Virginia, were a struggle.
‘Growing up, I was more of a loner,’ he says. ‘I had severe asthma as a kid, from around four to 12, and allergies, too.’ He has memories of being rushed to hospital in the middle of the night with breathing difficulties.
The 22-year-old is an extrovert and is known to back flip when celebrating his track wins
‘If I don’t handle my immune system, I could become very sick for long periods,’ he says. ‘I had a lot of difficult things when I was young. My parents divorced when I was 13 and that hit each part of my family very hard.’
Around the same time, Lyles was found to have attention deficit disorder, ADD.
‘I was just coming off the asthma and then got on to medication for ADD. It’s like my whole personality was basically taken away because the medication would drown my emotions.
‘That’s kind of when school also became not fun at all. There was a bullying side of it and with all that the depression hit.
‘I mean, I was involved in counselling for as long as I can remember. I have had therapy for depression since I was about nine. It has run in my family.
Athletics has lost its shine since Usain Bolt’s departure, but Lyles is tipped to step into that gap
‘Sometimes I tell people and they are shocked because people can think if you are a happy person that you don’t have bad times. Well, I have had this my whole life.’
Track has always been his answer. His father, Kevin, was a 45.01sec 400m runner, his mother an All-American runner at college and his younger brother, Josephus, a 400m world youth silver medallist in 2015.
‘Track was what I loved from the start,’ he says. ‘If I can be on a track, then I can be happy. It always saved me.’
Lyles has only met Usain Bolt once. It was in 2017 in the waiting room for the controversial Bayern Munich doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt. Lyles was visiting for an assessment on a hamstring injury.
‘The doctor mentioned he treats Usain Bolt and, after I came out of the office, he was right there waiting to go in after me,’ Lyles said. ‘At that point my biggest accomplishment was being fourth at the Olympic trials, so he wouldn’t know me, but I went up to him and I was like “Hey man, you do amazing things”.’
Lyles is congratulated by International Athletics chief Lord Coe for his 200m win in Belgium
Lyles’s bid to join Bolt in the roll call of gold medal-winning athletes starts in Doha, Lyles’s first senior international championships. He will only race the 200m, for which he will be the massive favourite in a field including Coleman. If the weather conditions are right, he says breaking Bolt’s world record of 19.19sec is ‘definitely possible’.
After Doha, his attention will turn to the 100m, with a bid to win both sprint golds at Tokyo 2020. For now, he is a 9.86sec runner in the 100m: good but not as good as Coleman. And not nearly as quick as Bolt. How he ultimately does in bridging those gaps in the 100m will define him.
‘I have always known I’d eventually do the 100m,’ he says. ‘I’ve spoken before about this dream I had. In it I ran 9.41sec and broke the world record in the Olympic semi-final on a blue track.
‘Funny thing, right, I get a lot of deja vu moments and dreams that come true and whatever. Let’s see what happens with that one.’ Indeed, let’s see.
If it comes true, he might just save the sport that saved him.