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Track and field’s struggle to fill the big shoes of the greatest-ever sprinter, Usain Bolt, should end soon if 18-year-old Erriyon Knighton of the United States sets alight the Athletics World Championships in Oregon this July-August. There’s good reason for optimism. Earlier this month, at a collegiate meet, the LSU Invitational in Baton Rouge, Knighton ran the fourth fastest-ever 200 metres. With 19.49 seconds, he bettered his own world Under-20 record and not for the first time comparisons with Bolt began.
Though he left everyone awe-struck recently, Knighton’s performance didn’t come out of the blue. Bolt’s Under-20 world record of 19.93 seconds was bettered by Knighton at the US Olympic trials last June. Knighton was faster twice; 19.88 and 19.84 in the heats and the final. He was selected for the United States team for the Tokyo Games but finished fourth with 20.55.
Split timings of their personal best race in the 200 metres, shows Knighton (9.20 seconds) is faster than Bolt (9.27 seconds) after the bend on the final stretch but in the first half Bolt is quicker with 9.92 compared to Knighton’s 10.3.
A comparison between the two in the 100 metres is also close. Bolt, at 20, had a personal best of 10.03 seconds, while Knighton at 18 had clocked 10.04. Knighton also achieved a wind-assisted 9.99 seconds in May last year. Like a young Bolt, Knighton’s preferred event is the 200 metres but don’t be surprised if he improves in the shorter sprint event just like the legend.
He is focussing on his start this season with an aim to run a sub-10 second time and will have a crack at this timing at the Prefontaine Classic meet on May 28. If he is able to run a nine-second timing it will be even more special because even Bolt, the world 100 metre and 200 metre record holder, didn’t have both a sub-20 and sub-10 at the age of 18.
It was his American football coach who asked him to try the sprints. Till the start of 2019, Knighton was known as a high-school football star. But in less than three years, he became the youngest track and field athlete to be on the US Olympic team since 1964. From 21.15 seconds in 2019 he has improved his personal best to 19.49. Only three men have gone faster ever- Bolt (19.19), Yohan Blake (19.26) and Michael Johnson (19.32). Knighton also has age on his side. Johnson was 28 when he set the then world record, Blake’s personal best was at the age of 22, while Bolt was 23 when he made history in Berlin. However, the challenge for Knighton, already an Olympian, will be to make the transition from the collegiate level to the world-class level. Running against the best in the world will be a different experience, compared to running a collegiate competition as Knighton would know after finishing outside the podium at the Tokyo Olympics.
Knighton undoubtedly is set for great deeds on the track. An improvement of 0.30 seconds in less than three months is possible but Knighton’s 19.49 is still some way off Bolt’s world record of 19.19. Two of the greatest have shown vast gains in timings over a short period.
Bolt made an improvement of 0.45 seconds; from 19.75 to 19.30, when he was 21, while Johnson by 0.47 seconds; from 19.79 to 19.32 at 28. So we could see something special from Knighton at the World Championships. But his coach Jonathan Terry is playing down the possibility of a record-breaking run this season. Terry told YouTube channel MJP TV: “19.19 is 19.19, it is hard. I think he will be able to do it in three years. It won’t be this year. He can break Michael Johnson’s record (this year).”
The coach didn’t expect Knighton to better his own record at the start of the season. Terry usually travels to watch all of Knighton’s races. But he was at the University of Central Florida when Knighton opened the season in blistering fashion in Baton Rouge. “I was running up and down the track,” the coach said when he heard the news.
The physique and running style have an uncanny resemblance. Knighton is about an inch and a half shorter than Bolt, who is nearly 6 feet and four inches tall. Like Bolt before him, Knighton has debunked the theory that being too tall is a disadvantage for a sprinter. Knighton has a fluid style and a long-stride pattern that compares well with the Jamaican great. Both didn’t set the track on fire in their first Olympics. Bolt failed to reach the final of the 200 metres (he was fifth in Heat 4) at the Athens Games before becoming a global sensation in Beijing four years later. Knighton did better with a 4th place finish in the final in Tokyo. The teenager from Tampa, Florida, is also a showboater. At the US 200m trials last year, Knighton did a Bolt. He pointed to the clock as he crossed the finish line in the heats to leave in his wake world champion and fellow American Noah Lyles. It was similar to Bolt’s theatrics just as he crossed the finish line at the 2009 Berlin World Championships where he set the current record.
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