Though Michael Johnson is no longer “the fastest man alive," the former world record holder in the 200- and 400-meter dash is still an avid track and field fan, and he has plenty of thoughts about the next generation of athletes ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
While he competed as a sprinter during his career, Johnson said the men’s sprints are not the most compelling events this year. He said he is most looking forward to watching competitive fields in the women’s sprints and middle distance events, as well as both the men’s and women’s 400-meter hurdle races.
“That women’s 100 meters is shaping up to be the most exciting race at this Games,” he told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday. “At the Trials, Sha’Carri Richardson is the overwhelming favorite, but once it gets to the Games, you have Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce having run the second-fastest time of all time a few weeks ago at the age of 34, which is amazing. The defending champion, Elaine Thompson is running well also, and then, of course, Dina Asher Smith from the [United Kingdom].”
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Sha'Carri Richardson wins the women's 100m in 10.77 during the USATF Golden Games at Hilmer Lodge Stadium. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
Johnson also commented on American sprinter Fred Kerley’s recent decision to compete only in the 100 and 200 meters at the U.S. Trials. Kerley is the reigning national champion in the 400 meters, but Johnson said the timing of Kerley’s training and competitions may be to blame for the choice.
“I think he made a mistake by starting late running the 400,” he said. “When he did it in Doha three weeks ago, the result was very much apart from what I would have expected and what I think he would have expected. The 100 and 200 are a little, dare I say, weak this year so far, so it's a very interesting decision.”
Kerley has only run the 400 meters twice this year: May 28 and June 6. However, he has competed in the 100 meters seven times and currently holds the fourth-fastest time in the world this year in the event. His best 200-meter time this year places him 23rd in the world, but he will compete in that event despite holding the eighth-fastest 400-meter time in the world.
One of the most anticipated athletes Kerley will face in the 200 meters is Noah Lyles. Johnson still holds the American record in the event, which he set at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. However, in 2019, he tweeted that he believes Lyles is the only sprinter who currently has a chance at breaking the American record time of 19.32.
“He's a special athlete,” Johnson said. “He's had some great performances over the last few years and still has huge potential. So far this year, he hasn't shown a lot of what I think anyone would expect from the standard that he set before. We'll see with the trials starting this weekend where he is, but he certainly has a tremendous amount of talent."
Noah Lyles poses with the United States flag after winning the 200m in 19.83 during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at Khalifa International Stadium. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
As buzz grows around trials that begin Friday and the Tokyo Games that start July 23, track and field is facing a reckoning over how to maintain the sports’ mainstream relevance outside of Olympic years. Recently, Seattle Seahawks star DK Metcalf brought NFL fans into track when he competed against elite runners in the 100-meter dash, and sprinter Christian Coleman attempted to do the same when he broke the NFL’s 40-yard dash record in 2017.
Johnson said the key to expanding the audience for track and field is appealing to a younger demographic, but he does not believe that one-time stunts like Metcalf’s are effective for achieving that goal in the long term.
"What didn't come out of that was what will sustain a new, younger viewer to this sport,” he said. “It was all just about whether DK should be or should not be in the race. That’ll get you a blip for a week, and if that's what you're looking for, then keep doing that, but it's like spinning wheels. You're not going to get any real traction with that in my opinion.”
One of the ways Johnson is helping promote track and field to younger audiences is by introducing award recipients for the sport at the USA TODAY Network High School Sports Awards. The awards are the largest high school sports recognition program in the country and will bring together the top athletes from 104 local, regional and statewide awards programs.
“The one thing about this sport is that the youth participation rate remains high,” Johnson said. “We need to keep that going and keep young athletes interested in this sport. If this is a way that I can keep them excited about their participation in the sport then job done for me.”
Contact Emily Adams at [email protected] or on Twitter @eaadams6.
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