Erriyon Knighton: Can the US speedster break Usain Bolt’s world record?

The 18-year-old from Florida is frighteningly fast and currently owns both the under-18 and under-20 world 200m records. Now talk has turned to him beating a mark once thought impossible to break - the 200m world record of sprint legend Usain Bolt. 

By Sean McAlister
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Three names sit on top of the list of fastest-ever 200m runners, and all of them are legends.

Jamaica’s eight-time Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt is number one, having set a blistering time of 19.19 seconds at the Berlin World Championships in August 2009.

Bolt’s compatriot Yohan Blake - a two-time Olympic relay gold medallist who was so often the man to push Bolt to his limits - is second, hitting 19.26 in a Brussels Diamond League meet in September 2011.

The third man on the list is the USA’s Michael Johnson - winner of four Olympic titles including a world record-breaking gold medal in the Atlanta 1996 200m when he shaved three-tenths off of the previous world best to finish in a time of 19.32.

Number four has no Olympic titles to his name. He has been to one edition of the Games - last year in Tokyo - where he finished fourth in the 200m aged only 17.

Yet less than a year later, he stunned the world by setting a time of 19.49 seconds, instantly catapulting himself into the company of the aforementioned legends.

Remember the name: Erriyon Knighton.

Want know more about rising star Erriyon Knighton? We've got you covered

Who is Erriyon Knighton?

At age 14, Knighton wasn’t even thinking about athletics.

“You could have asked me what 100m was and I wouldn't have known. I knew nothing about track,” the young sprint sensation told the BBC in early 2022.

Back then, the teenager was fully focused on American football, playing wide receiver for his high school team.

At 1.9m and over 70 kilos, he had the height and build to thrive in that sport. But all his aspirations were soon to change when at age 15, his coach timed him running over 200m.

That one run caused his coach to advise him to concentrate fully on track and field.

What followed was a meteoric rise in his newly-adopted sport. At age 16, Knighton clocked 20.33 in the Junior Olympics - setting the second-fastest time by an under 18-year-old, behind Usain Bolt.

In June 2021, aged 17, he made the USA Olympic team, becoming the youngest male American to achieve the feat in 57 years. And by the end of the Olympics, he had not only managed to claim fourth in the 200m but also beaten Bolt’s under-18 world record on multiple occasions.

Fast-forward less than another year to April 2022 and Knighton was at it again. His time of 19.49 set at the LSU Invitational is the current under-20 world record, breaking the previous best set by - you guessed it - Bolt a full 18 years beforehand.

It was also a time that would have handily won the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo.

Can Knighton beat Usain Bolt’s world record?

While Knighton’s time of 19.49 makes him the fourth-fastest man in history, it is actually the eighth-fastest time ever due to the fact that Bolt holds four of those eight times and Blake two.

However, at age 18, Knighton has posted his times at a far younger age than any of his rivals.

Bolt’s current world record time of 19.19 was set in 2009 when he was 22 years old. The only other time he set previous to the record that is faster than Knighton’s was the 19.30 he achieved at Beijing 2008 aged 21.

At age 17, Bolt’s best time was 19.93, 0.09 seconds slower than Knighton’s best at the age. It took Bolt until age 20 to achieve a lower mark - this time of 19.75.

However, it is the rapid progression of Knighton that has really set tongues wagging when it comes to the possibility of him breaking a world record once deemed “impossible” to beat.

Between age 17 and 18, Knighton has lowered his own 200m time by a full 0.35 seconds. Bolt, by comparison, was 21 by the time he set a time lower than the 19.49 of Knighton - and that was the then world record set in the Olympic final in Beijing.

Ominously for the current world record of Bolt, Knighton has time on his hands. And plenty of it.

When the Paris Games come around, the young American speedster will still only be 20, and will be entering his peak years as a sprinter when the Games move to LA four years later.

"I get called young every day," the teenager explained. "I am going be 24 in 2028, that is in two more Olympics and still kind of young. I think about that all the time."

But at the rate he is improving, the world may even see Knighton do the impossible sooner than anyone could have imagined.

How does he compare to the current generation of sprinters?

While it may seem Knighton is a shoo-in for the world title next month in Oregon, there are a number of present-day sprinters who will be more than eager to give him a run for his money.

The one who is closest to him in terms of raw speed is compatriot and teammate Noah Lyles.

Lyles came home from Tokyo 2020 with an Olympic bronze medal, following on from the gold he won at the last World Championships in 2019.

At 24 years old, the Florida native may be six years Knighton's senior, but there's no doubt about his pace or potential.

On 5 July 2019, Lyles set his personal best time in Lausanne - one that made him at the time the fourth-fastest 200m runner in history. His mark? 19.50 - a mere 0.01 seconds slower than Knighton's best.

And while it's one thing to produce blistering times when the pressure is off, it's quite another to produce them in the bubbling pressure pot of championship competition.

One man who has proven he can turn up when the heat is on is Canada's Olympic 200m champion Andre De Grasse. While De Grasse's best-ever time of 19.62 ranks him ninth on the all-time list of 200m runners, the six-time Olympic medallist has proven time and again he can rise to the occasion - something Knighton has not yet had much experience with.

Also don't count out other members of Team USA who are all within the top 25 of all time, including Kenny Bednarek, the 12th fastest with 19.68, Michael Norman, 15th fastest with 19.70 and Fred Kerley, 23rd fastest with 19.76.

In the end, it all boils down to one thing. You won't want to miss one second of Knighton's 200m campaign at next month's World Athletics Championships, which take place from 15 to 24 July in Oregon.

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