Bronze medalist Noah Lyles and silver medalist Kenneth Bednarek celebrate after the Men's 200m Final at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on August 04, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
TOKYO – Team USA’s three finalists in the men’s 200-meter dash at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 entered the race with the same expectations and came out of it with widely different emotions.
Kenny Bednarek felt validation after winning the silver medal.
Erriyon Knighton, the 17-year-old who was the youngest men’s track finalist in the modern Olympic Games, didn’t like how fourth place felt. Not one bit. No sir.
And Noah Lyles, the reigning world champion, had one word to describe how it feels to be a bronze medalist: “Boring.”
Why? “Because I didn’t win,” Lyles said. “Everybody wants to win when they come, right?”
For the first time since 2004, the Olympic men’s 200-meter champion would not be named Usain Bolt. Although Team USA was represented by these three formidable finalists Wednesday night at Olympic Stadium, the new gold medalist ended up being Andre De Grasse of Canada. He was the silver medalist five years ago in Rio and had already repeated as bronze medalist in the 100 meters.
De Grasse set a Canadian national record, clocking 19.62 seconds, while Bednarek’s time was a personal best of 19.68. Lyles equalled his season best at 19.74 seconds and Knighton – who has already erased some of Bolt’s junior records – ran 19.93.
“Not what I wanted, but at the same time, it’s a great achievement,” Lyles said. “It’s just another sign that you can’t take anything for granted ... it’s nice to have, but I want more.”
During the introductions, Bednarek presented his “Kung Fu Kenny” persona, including a polite bow, although he ditched his signature head tie.
“I just wanted to show off my hair a little bit more,” said Bednarek, who had dyed the top of his head a golden color.
Knighton was serious when his name was called and had a casual demeanor.
And Lyles spread his arms wide to the heavens, closed his eyes, and let out a primal scream.
When the gun went off, Lyles appeared in command after slingshotting around the curve from Lane 3.
“Once I came off the turn I was just running for my life,” he said.
However, De Grasse and Bednarek, running side by side, overtook Lyles, and then dueled for the gold. Bednarek took a slight lead before De Grasse pulled away to cross the finish line first.
While Bednarek didn’t capture the gold, he did accomplish his goal of attracting notice.
The 22-year-old from Rice Lake, Wisconsin, attended junior college in Iowa and said he has always felt like “I was a little bit overlooked,” he said. “I was running fast times in college and I just kind of wanted to be someone that people knew that I was going to be a threat, a contender. And I felt like I was disrespected, but now hopefully I get my respect.”
Bednarek, who said his family had a viewing party in a cousin’s garage, has consistently dropped time in the 100 and 200.
“I can totally build off this in the future,” he said of his Olympic time. “I definitely think I can run way faster than that. But that’s going to come with technique and experience. I’m pretty new to this game, so there’s a lot of things that I’ve got to work on.”
As Bednarek spoke in the media mixed zone, someone even newer to this game – Knighton – was waiting his turn, sitting in the corner with his head down like he’d been sent to the principal’s office.
“Oh, he’s going to be dangerous in the future – 17 years old and being able to run this fast,” Bednarek said. “He’s raw, he’s got a lot of talent and a lot of things to work on and he’s definitely going to be a monster in the future.”
The Tampa, Florida, teenager, who will complete his senior year of high school when he gets home, plans to dedicate himself to “just coming back and never feeling this feeling again, what I’m feeling right now,” Knighton said. “I wouldn’t say sad, but just not making the podium.”
He said he tried to approach the competition as if it were a regular track meet. “You don’t want to think about it as the Olympics because then you’re going to get kind of scared,” he said.
But Knighton wasn’t intimidated by the other runners in the race. After all, he was wearing spikes designed to commemorate Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s accomplishments.
‘Y’all know her?” he asked the media, many of whom had covered Joyner-Kersee before Knighton was born. “She’s a really big icon for people like me and a lot look up to her as she racked up a lot of medals in the Olympics.”
What will Knighton focus on when he goes back into training? “Everything,” he said. “Not just one thing, I’m going to focus on everything.”
He’ll also choose a college, and said he has not narrowed down his choices yet. Knighton said it’s important to continue his education “because sprinting (doesn’t) last forever.”
Lyles thought his sprinting days might end sooner than anticipated when he stopped having fun. He has been open about his mental health journey and has tried to inspire others to seek help.
“This is by far my hardest year ever, mentally and physically,” Lyles said. “I kept fighting and I’m going to keep fighting. Just because it was hard doesn’t mean I’m going to stop.”
He wouldn’t even entertain the thought that he might have won if the Olympics had been held in 2020 as planned.
“I don’t think about what ifs,” said the 24-year-old native of Alexandria, Va. “Why would I put myself in a position of thinking a whole bunch of what ifs? Because then I’ll just create situations in the future that haven’t happened and overwork my brain and then all of sudden I’m creating panic attacks for myself, digging myself into a hole that doesn’t even exist.”
Although Lyles has been one of the faces of the Tokyo Games, he said he didn’t feel a lot of pressure from within or from the public.
“I try just to treat it like a normal day, relax, let my mind rest, and come out here with the idea that it’s mine,” said Lyles. “No matter if I win or lose, I’m going to still keep going with the idea that every race I enter is mine. And I’m going to take it.”
De Grasse took it instead, and Lyles said after the race the Canadian told him, “Congrats man, you pushed me.”
Lyles got emotional talking about the person who has pushed him the most, his younger brother Josephus.
“I thank God every day that I’m able to come out here,” Lyles said, “because at the same time, I feel like this wasn’t even my dream. In 2012 my brother had the dream that he was going to come to the Olympics and I’d really just tag along for the ride.”
The sprinter than broke down crying. “And sometimes I think to myself, ‘This should be him.’ I’d be OK not being here, because I feel like I have a lot of talents and I feel I can go in different directions, and he’s talented in his own right…”
Josephus Lyles participated in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track & Field, but did not qualify for the Olympics.
“I wanted to do this together,” Lyles said, and it’s taken us so far and I’m just like, ‘He should be here.’”
Lyles, who has interests in fashion, art and music and is excited about an invitation to the Met Gala, has taken Knighton under his wing. After all, the 17-year-old achieved something Lyles could not in 2016 when he tried to make his first Olympic team.
“I’m very proud of him,” Lyles said. “I’ve told him that all the time. He got fourth today, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get fourth tomorrow or the next year after that. If he keeps pushing, I think he’s right now on the road to do even more amazing things.”
One of the takeaways from the Olympic 200 final, Lyles said, is “Maybe it just wasn’t my time. God said that you’re affecting a lot of people and you don’t have to win to affect those people.
And he said, somebody else needs the light. Maybe De Grasse needs that light.
“You know it’s not all about me,” he added. “It’d be selfish to think it was all about me. Sometimes it’s about other people and still being able to come out here and produce my best. That’s all I can hope for.”
And if Lyles does, he’ll find an Olympic gold medal much more interesting than the bronze he just won. “I’m not Usain Bolt’s successor,” Lyles said. “I’m not Andre De Grasses’ successor. I’m me, and that’s who I’ll always be.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.