EUGENE, Ore. – The first time Noah Lyles and Erriyon Knighton, the two fastest runners over 200 meters this season, met after Lyle poured fuel onto global track and field’s five-alarm rivalry was during doping control at the U.S. Championships.
“When we were both trying to pee for drug testing,” Lyles said laughing.
Knighton wasn’t laughing at the time.
Only minutes earlier Lyles at the finish of his 19.67 to 19.69-second victory gestured in Knighton’s direction. Knighton grew heated when questioned about the incident in post-race interviews.
So with both men held captive by their bladders in the small doping control area, Lyles attempted to set the record straight, insisting the gesture wasn’t directed at Knighton.
“To be honest it was a simple conversation,” Lyles recalled. “He was like, ‘Wow, you don’t even have to worry about it. I get it.’”
Lyles, 25, the defending World champion, and Knighton, 18 and the fastest man over 200 meters in more than a decade, Tuesday night remained on a collision course for the most anticipated showdown of the World Championships, the 200 final at Hayward Field Thursday night.
The worldwide interest in the Lyles-Knighton clash is driven by both the rare gifts of the two young stars and the sport’s hunger for the legitimate full blown rivalry Usain Bolt’s decade of dominance deprived it of.
“It’s fun,” Lyles said. “I think everybody can say that they go on social media and say track and field needs more rivalries, track and field needs more rivalries and then you get one and it’s oh, like this is cool, this is fun, and not everybody handles it the same way but you know it comes as it is and it makes us both better.”
The rivalry could also be a game-changer for American track as it hopes that the World Championships will serve as a launching pad to a higher profile with viewers and corporate sponsors.
“I think at high level rivalries are good,” said Max Siegel, the CEO of USA Track & Field, the sport’s national governing body. “So if you look at Erriyon and Noah Lyles and the back and forth … I think we have a group of very young, charismatic, talented elite athletes that we want to connect with and galvanize and promote those athletes”.
A Worlds 200 that was already one of the most anticipated events heading into the season became even more fun following Lyles’ gesture – to some it look it looked like a point, to others he was mimicking answering a call — at the end of the U.S. Championships final.
“Come Eugene everybody who is going to be watching that race is going to be picking either Noah or Erriyon for different reasons,” Ato Boldon, a former World 200 champion, now an analyst for NBC, said referring to Worlds. “I think there will be people who say I didn’t like what Noah did to the kid at the US nationals So I’m going to root for Erriyon and I think there’s going to be other people who go, you know what this is pro sports. Why should track and field be any different? We see this all the time in other sports, why should be track and field be any different? And they will continue to root for Noah.
“One way or another Noah just made that race a lot more interesting.”
Lyles insisted that the gesture was directed at his critics, not Knighton.
“I was saying, ‘I got your message. I got it,’” Lyles said. “That wasn’t a message to Erriyon. He’s a competitor. That was a message to everyone who kept doubting me (and those who say), ‘Oh, we’re tired of you winning everything. We’re tired of seeing you win.
“That’s cool. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop winning.”
But Lyles also knew that by the time he ran into Knighton in drug testing at the U.S. Championships the damage was already done.
“‘I know you’ve got to go back to practice and you’re going to start dropping some bombs because I know if I got beat today that’s exactly what i would be doing,’” Lyles recalled telling Knighton. “So that’s going to make me go back to practice and I’m about to start hitting it because I know that he’s coming back with a vengence and I’m not going to give him anything less than a 100 (percent).”
“They’re both very young and what Noah did I don’t think was necessarily intentional,” Boldon said. “The point done at the end, I don’t think Noah would have liked that done to him in any capacity. Right? So that’s the first thing.
“And he has to take accountability for that. What he said in the (post-race) interview was so flippant about a teenager that has already made an Olympic final and who has run faster than him. So I thought whether or not Noah Lyles knows it he has just poured accelerant on whatever is smoldering in there. Whether it’s just an ember or whether that’s about to be a big fire. I think it’s going to be a bigger fire than a lot of people think. Because I think Erriyon Knighton is going to go back to Tampa and he’s going to say, ‘What happened in Eugene with Noah Lyles can never happen again. I’m going to run past him if he’s in a lane ahead of me and he’s not going to catch me.’ And Noah’s going to go back and say, ‘I cannot have to work that hard to catch a high schooler.’ I can already see Noah doing damage control, ‘Oh, yeah, the point was something else.’ Whoa, that genie is out of the bottle and that high schooler is more than irritated at what was said and what was done. So my thing is good. Let it happen.”
Knighton, clearly irritated at the U.S. Championships, has tried to downplay the incident and rivalry recently.
“I’m not really thinking about what happened in Eugene (at the U.S. Championships),” Knighton said after winning his opening round heat Monday night in 20.01, the night’s second fastest time behind Lyles’ 19.98. “The past is the past. Don’t want to dwell on it. We’re now, trying to get on the podium and hopefully get a sweep for the United States.”
Knighton was asked about his relationship with Lyles.
“It’s real chill,” he said.”There ain’t no beef or nothing. At the end of the day, it’s just a sport.”
Lyles and Knighton train within an hour of each other in Florida. And both have been billed at young ages as the heir apparent to Jamaica’s Bolt, the eight-time Olympic and 11-time World champion, and the world record holder in the 200 at 19.19.
Lyles won his first U.S. title at 19 in 2017. A year later he was undefeated on the Diamond League at 20, running 19.69 in four consecutive races. He ran 19.50, the fourth fastest time in history, in 2019 and later that season captured the World title.
The Olympic favorite leading up the Tokyo Games, Lyles emerged as the transcendent star U.S. track had been looking for, appearing on pages of GQ and Vogue and Time, the latter in which he guaranteed, “I’m going to win in Tokyo.”
Instead Lyles had to settle for the bronze. Afterward, he unburdened himself about his battle with depression, at one point breaking down sobbing.
“Mentally, getting on and off antidepressants was really hard,” Lyle said.
Knighton was fourth in the Olympic final, seven months after he signed a contract with adidas as a 16-year-old high school junior, forgoing his prep and collegiate eligibility.
In between, he twice lowered Bolt’s world under-20 200 record at the U.S. Olympic Trials, the second improvement, 19.84, nearly a full tenth under the Jamaican’s teenage best (19.93).
The comparisons to Bolt only increased after Knighton ran 19.49, eclipsing Lyles as the fourth fastest man in history.
“Everyone was saying Erriyon ran 19.4,” Lyles said. “I’m racing a person, not a time.”