By Steve Keating
DOHA (Reuters) – The first world athletics championships in 16 years without Usain Bolt in the starting blocks get underway on Friday with the sport searching for someone to step into the starring role left vacant by the charismatic Jamaican sprinter.
Noah Lyles, the fun-loving American speedster, has been hyped as an obvious candidate but he told Reuters on Thursday he’s not particularly interested in the job — although he could do it.
For the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) struggling to remain relevant in an increasingly competitive sporting landscape, the Sept. 27-Oct. 6 championships will also serve as an audition for that role.
Lyles, who is the heavy favourite to take gold in the 200 metres, ticks a lot of those star quality boxes.
More than a sprinting machine, Lyles, an aspiring rap artist, runs to his own beat.
The social media savvy 22-year-old has also strolled down the runway at a Paris fashion show, offered up designs for Boston Marathon T-shirts and painted his own special touch on a pair of shoes for his mother’s birthday.
When Lyles glides into the room for an interview he comes armed with an engaging smile and plenty of bravado that stops short of cockiness.
None of these things will help Lyles win the 200m on Tuesday but they attract interest, particularly from the casual fan.
“I’m pretty cool, pretty chill,” Lyles said. “I’m excited to be finally at the end of a journey it’s time to lay some things down, win some medals.”
Bolt won his first world championship medals, two silver, in 2007 in Osaka and his last a bronze in 2017 in London.
In-between there were 11 golds mined from Berlin, Daegu, Moscow and Beijing, along with eight golds from three Olympics.
For more than a decade the Jamaican was the face of track and field, the crossover star every sport needs to hold the interest of fickle consumers.
“I don’t see myself as the next Usain Bolt,” Lyles said. “I don’t see myself filling a vacuum I’m just out here doing me.
“You like it, cool, I’m all with it. Thanks for the support.
“Don’t like it, I’m pretty sure there is a sprinter out there someone is going to gravitate to.
“I think I have the personality.
“I do enjoy it, I’m not afraid to have fun and be a showman on the track.”
A born entertainer, Lyles will paint his hair silver for his races.
Having run the fastest 200m this season (19.50) and the fourth fastest of all time, Lyles is expected to top the podium in Doha but it will take more than silver hair and a gold medal to make people forget about Bolt.
Before Bolt’s playful winning poses were mimicked around world, the Jamaican exploded into the spotlight smashing both the 100m and 200m world records which he still owns.
Lyles will compete in his first worlds looking to do something similar by taking down Bolt’s 200m mark of 19.19 seconds.
“I still think 18 seconds is possible and if I obtain that I don’t plan to stop there,” said Lyles. “I’m going to push the boundaries as far as I can so who is ever next after me has a long way to go.
“If it happens, it happens. I’ll be excited. If it doesn’t, I am going to enjoy the journey.”
While Lyles has many diverse interests, he has had to focus intensely on the task at hand.
That has meant two long gruelling months in Europe away from home.
“The last two weeks it just got really hard I was homesick,” he said. “I was by myself, just going to bed, eating, training, recovery, repeat.
“They were long days.
“I was like as long as I can make it out of this it will all be worth it.
“I just felt like I was being tested how strong my mental will to want this was and stay focused.
“Knowing that I got out of that part and I am finally here I feel like something great is on the other side.”
(Additional reporting Gene Cherry and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber. Editing by Christian Radnedge)