When Noah Lyles competes in his sport’s marquee events, he wears a tracksuit with “USA” emblazoned across his chest. He wore it when he won two gold medals last fall at the track and field world championships in Doha, Qatar. He would have worn it in Tokyo this summer at the Olympics. When he wins, which is most every time he runs, Lyles brings glory to a country that historically has oppressed his people. He has felt that internal struggle before but never more acutely than in the past week.
“I definitely feel more conflicted now than I have in the past,” Lyles said. “In the past, I felt like I was just doing this for the sport. Now I’m starting to feel like maybe I need to rethink how to go forward or what to do. Because I want to see change, just like everybody else.”
Lyles is one of the fastest men on the planet, a rising star who had been poised to become one of the world’s most famous athletes before the novel coronavirus pandemic caused the Tokyo Olympics to be postponed to 2021. He is also a 22-year-old black man in America watching the country confront systemic racism and hoping he can help it change.
Lyles, a graduate of Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High, competes with his vibrant personality on full display, a conscious effort to transcend and elevate track and field in this country. He dyes his hair in tribute to his favorite anime characters, sports socks with various cartoons and flashes his megawatt smile in victory or (rarely) defeat. He has always wanted people to watch him. Now he wants them to listen.
On Sunday, as protests grew in the wake of the police killings of unarmed black people George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Lyles posted a declaration of his intentions on Twitter. He wrote that it was difficult for him to speak out “because [of] all the positions I am in. But at a certain point you just have to say forget it because people need to see they have support.
“It hurts my heart because as an athlete I love running for my country,” he added. “But as a human being it is disheartening that my people are being killed while I go out and win [medals] for them to try and make the U.S. look good.”
In the days since, Lyles has filled his Twitter account with messages supporting protesters and exposing police violence, hoping, he said, to spread knowledge. He has pledged to donate money to causes advancing the Black Lives Matter movement. And Tuesday, he marched with protesters in Orlando, near his training base in Clermont, Fla.
It has been a wearying, stressful time. Lyles described a building unease, baked into the experience of being black in America and compressed into one week.
“It gets harder and harder each day,” he said Friday in a phone conversation. “Sometimes you just want to take a break. But you feel like you can’t take a break anymore, because everywhere you look at, you’re seeing nothing but violence and murder. It starts to bring out fear. Fear turns into anxiety, and it can go into depression. It can get very heavy quickly. I’m going to be talking to a therapist as soon as we’re done here. And we’re going to be having a long talk.”
That pain is what led Lyles to speak out, to use his voice in a way he rarely had before. He felt he could not stay silent.
“At first, it’s just stories your grandparents or maybe your parents had to go through,” he said. “Then when you start seeing it happen to your friends or you, oh, my gosh, this is real. It becomes almost a traumatic event. That’s when it is the most serious. Even for some black people, it’s hard to believe it can happen to them at some point. After seeing events like watching a black man die on Twitter ... that’s when it becomes a real event: Okay, this could be me next.”
Last weekend, Lyles spoke with his brother, Josephus, who is his best friend and a fellow pro track athlete. “At some point,” Josephus told him, “you feel like you have to answer the call.” Josephus said he was attending the protest Tuesday in Orlando. Noah believed he needed to join, too, so they went together.
The experience left Lyles with mixed emotions. He relished the energy of the crowd, listening to speakers educate and inform. When the protesters started marching, Lyles grew frustrated with how police managed the crowd, and he said it gave him an understanding of why protests in other cities could turn violent.
“We started marching, and the police were guiding us outside of the city into the ’hood,” Lyles said. “We were like: ‘Um, are we protesting to our own people now? We already know this.’ These aren’t the people that we’re trying to get out to. We’re trying to be in front of the police officers or stay in the middle of the city. It was a shocking factor. They are literally guiding us out to an area they don’t care about, so just in case it turned violent, we would be already destroying our own areas. If you wanted to protest in the city, that means you had to go through the police.”
Lyles said he has thought about bringing his protest to his sport, even the Olympics, although organizers at the highest levels have prohibited it. Rule 50 of the Olympic charter prevents political statements at the Games. (Sociologist Harry Edwards, who organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, points out that banning political statements is itself a political act, particularly at an event swathed in flags and anthems.) The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee placed fencer Race Imboden and hammer thrower Gwen Berry on probation last year after Imboden knelt on the medal stand and Berry raised her fist at the Pan American Games.
“My mom was talking to me just a few minutes ago,” Lyles said. “She was like: ‘I don’t know if you’ve thought about how much protesting can affect you. You’re basically taking away your dream.’ It’s my dream to be able to go outside every day and run and go to track meets and run for money and be able to not go into a cubicle, and hire my mom for a job and support my whole family. This is a dream. Basically, [she was] saying, if I protest for what I believe now, all that can be taken away. And I said, ‘I know that.’ ”
Sponsorship money drives Lyles’s income, and he senses some want athletes to “maybe tone it down” on social issues. As a black athlete reliant on corporate America, he feels the pull of an unfair choice.
“By [protesting at the Olympics], I might be taking away that next generation’s security,” Lyles said of his family. “Instead of fighting financial needs, I will now have to fight [for] civil rights.”
Lyles has an affinity for fast cars. When he turned pro out of high school and signed with Adidas, he bought a BMW. His mother, Keisha Caine Bishop, went home and cried. Lyles understands why now, even if he has not personally experienced harassment from police.
“It doesn’t mean I don’t have fear that I will,” Lyles said. “I would put it like this: Knowing that you have a good car that is looked at in a high light and knowing you’re a black man means that you will be more on guard over how you present yourself. When I drive my car, I definitely follow every rule because I don’t want to be pulled over. That’s just an excuse for them to do whatever they want to me. ... All they see is the color of my skin, and they equate with me having this car, and their first jump would probably be I’m selling drugs. Being a black man that’s in a good, stable position in life, you have to know who your enemies will be. It’s not the people on the track.”
Living with those thoughts is unfamiliar, if not unfathomable, for many Americans. Lyles must endure them and then compete for his country. He still loves it enough to want to make it better.
“I don’t think you feel conflict until you see the other side,” he said. “When you’re at a world championships or you rep the U.S. in another country and you’re actually being praised over what you do, when they’re like, ‘You’re such a great athlete.’ Then when you come home and you’re completely treated the opposite way, then that’s when you have an issue. That’s when it’s like, ‘Okay, now I feel in my position I need to do something.’ ”
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