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Sha’Carri Richardson and Noah Lyles are among the athletes aiming for their first gold medal

Sha’Carri Richardson and Noah Lyles are among the athletes aiming for their first gold medal

There are big races and then there are the Olympics.

When Sha’Carri Richardson, Noah Lyles and all the other fastest runners and best jumpers and throwers of the 2024 Olympic track and field meet, not much of what they accomplished on the road to Paris will matter. What will matter is how they respond to the pressure when the spotlight is on.

Will they end up shining as brightly as Usain Bolt or Carl Lewis, whose performance made them larger-than-life icons, even when it came to Olympic gold medals?

Or will they be more like Jamaican sprinter Shericka Jackson and American hurdler Grant Holloway, who are among the best runners of their generation but still try to convert all their talent into a place at the top of the Olympic podium?

“Right now, I don’t have an Olympic gold medal,” said Lyles, who counts the bronze medal he won in the 200 meters at the Tokyo Games as one of his biggest disappointments. “I have several world championship titles and national championship titles as well. The only thing missing from the list is an Olympic gold medal. And I plan to go home with plenty of them.”

The dramas of Richardson, Lyles and everyone else will play out in 48 events over 10 days, with most of the action taking place at the Stade de France starting August 2. There’s another bonus: a one-time payout of $50,000 to all 48 gold medalists, courtesy of World Athletics, the organization that runs the world’s track and field competitions.

The nearly 2,200 athletes competing in the biggest Olympic sport are well aware that there is a lot of money at stake, but the gold medal also confers a touch of immortality that only an Olympic title can offer.

“This moment only comes every four years,” Holloway said. “If you’re not training to be an Olympic champion, what the hell are you doing? That’s my mentality.”

Richardson’s first Olympic Games

Richardson makes her Olympic debut after her much-discussed absence from the last Olympics due to a positive marijuana test.

Her current form, her status as reigning world champion and the absence of two-time defending champion Elaine Thompson-Herah make Richardson the sprinter to beat in the women’s 100 metres. But it won’t be a walk in the park.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is competing in her fifth (and final) Olympic Games and has already won this race twice. Jackson is a specialist in the 200m (see below) but is also one of the fastest runners in the world over this distance.

Lyles tries to win the sprint double

Lyles attributes his poor finish in 2021 largely to depression preventing him from focusing. This race is the only 200-meter sprint he has lost at a major championship.

By the time the 200m final rolls around on August 8, the 100 will be over and we’ll know if Lyles has a chance of pulling off a sprint one-two like Bolt and Lewis before him. Lyles is the reigning world champion in the 100m, but he is less experienced at that distance.

Just last month, another Jamaican, Kishane Thompson, ran 9.77, heading into his first Olympics with a world-leading time. Jamaica’s Oblique also beat Seville Lyles in a head-to-head competition in Kingston in June. But a warm-up run in Kingston and the Olympics in Paris are two different things.

Distance demons

In Tokyo, Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan achieved one of the most astonishing performances in Olympic history, winning medals in the 1,500 metres (bronze), 5,000 metres (gold) and 10,000 metres (gold).

She plans to do more and has even expressed the thought that she might do those three races and then add the marathon, which takes place on the last day of the Olympics, to her schedule.

“I’ll decide a week before,” Hassan said in a recent interview. “Maybe I’ll have a great training session somewhere.”

As always, Hassan will face a tough challenge in her quest for medals: Faith Kipyegon of Kenya, the reigning world champion in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters. Kipyegon broke her own world record in the 1,500 meters in an Olympic preparatory race this month, crossing the finish line in 3:49.04.

Holloway’s bad race

Holloway is a three-time world champion in the 110-meter hurdles and is considered the favorite to win on August 8. He was also one of the favorites three years ago in Tokyo, but slacked off in the home stretch and lost to Hansle Parchment from Jamaica.

Holloway has a 9-3 record against Parchment in direct duels and a 2-1 record against him at the Olympics. However, both of his victories came in preliminary rounds and the loss was for the gold medal.

Jackson’s bad day

Jackson is the only woman other than the late Florence Griffith Joyner to run the 200 meters in 21.48 or faster, so why hasn’t most of the world heard of her?

At the last Olympics, she hit the brakes too early in the first run, finished fourth and failed to even make it to the gold medal final. It’s a mistake she described as the most devastating of her career and one that paved her way to Paris.

Now there is more trouble. She failed to finish a preparatory race on July 9 in Hungary and it was unclear whether she would be healthy before the Olympics. If Jackson is not there, American Gabby Thomas, who enters with this year’s best time (21.78) and a bronze medal from Tokyo, would be the clear favorite.

Jumping for Ukraine

Anyone who thinks that sport and politics have nothing to do with each other should tune in on August 4th when Ukrainian high jumper Yaroslava Mahuchikh takes the field.

Mahuchikh’s move comes just weeks after breaking a 37-year-old world record in her discipline with a jump of 2.10 metres at an Olympic preparatory tournament in Paris.

World Athletics has banned Russians from international competitions since the outbreak of war with Ukraine. This means that Maria Lasitskene will not be there to defend her Olympic title. Lasitskene was also not there last year when Mahuchikh won the title on the emotional final day of the World Championships.