Let’s start with the obvious here: By now you probably know way too much about “Burrito-gate” and how pork can cause nandrolone in the system.
But, believe it or not, there’s a lot more going on at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials than Shelby Houlihan’s ongoing steroid case. Starting Friday and concluding on June 27, America’s best and brightest will compete at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, for their spots on the team for the Tokyo Games.
From Allyson Felix’s incredible quest to compete on the sport’s biggest stage for the fifth time to the ascent of dazzling newcomers like Noah Lyles and Sha’Carri Richardson, there are so many stars to keep an eye on over the next 10 days.
The top three finishers in each event — provided they are able to meet the World Athletics’ qualifying standards by the end of the month — make the team. Six athletes are selected to make up the pool for each of the 4×100 and 4×400 relay events (with four chosen to run at the Olympics).
Excited to watch the Olympic trials but haven’t exactly been keeping up with the sport since, well, the last Olympics? Fear not, we’ve got you covered. Here are the athletes and events you don’t want to miss.
Shelby Houlihan and the possibly tainted burrito
Houlihan, a 2016 Olympian and the American record holder in the 1,500 meters and the 5,000 meters, was banned for four years earlier this week. Late on Thursday, Houlihan had been removed from the trials start lists for both events, and it appears highly unlikely that she will compete.
A quick refresher: The 28-year-old tested positive for an anabolic steroid in December — something she says was the result of eating a pork burrito bought at a Mexican food truck.
“We concluded that the most likely explanation was a burrito purchased and consumed approximately 10 hours before that drug test from an authentic Mexican food truck that serves pig offal near my house in Beaverton, Oregon,” Houlihan wrote on Instagram. “I notified the AIU that I believed this was the source.”
Houlihan claimed the World Anti-Doping Agency was aware pork could cause elevated levels of nandrolone, and that she had passed a polygraph and had a hair sample analyzed by toxicologists.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport confirmed the ruling on Tuesday. Houlihan was insistent she was innocent.
“I want to be very clear. I have never taken any performance enhancing substances,” Houlihan wrote. “I’m not interested in cheating. I don’t do this for the accolades, money, or for people to know my name. I do this because I love it.”
Houlihan is currently banned through January of 2025, which would automatically disqualify her from the upcoming Games as well as those in 2024.
Allyson Felix’s continued dominance
With nine Olympic medals, Felix is tied (with seven-time Olympian Merlene Ottey) for the most decorated female athlete in track and field history at the Olympics — and Felix has won more Olympic gold medals (six) than any other women in the sport.
Now, the 35-year-old Felix is looking to make her final Olympic team — and win some more hardware to perhaps cement her status as the best ever. She has qualified to compete at trials in both the 200-meter and 400-meter races. She ran her fastest 400 in four years during last month’s USATF Open, clocking in at 50.88 seconds.
Felix gave birth to her daughter in 2018, and has since become a fierce supporter for female athletes and maternity policies. She has been open about the challenges of coming back after a complicated childbirth, but has said being a mom has motivated her even more.
“Being a mom has shifted my motivation and desire,” Felix said in a recent interview with Shape. “I’ve always been really naturally competitive, and I’ve always had that desire to win, but now as a parent, the reason why is different. I really want to show my daughter what it’s like to overcome adversity and what hard work is like and how character and integrity are important to anything you do.”
Noah Lyles attempts “the double”
With the fastest qualifying time in the 200 meters by a full 0.2 of a second, Lyles is yet another capable sprinter looking to fill the Usain Bolt-sized void this summer. The 23-year-old won gold at the 2019 worlds in the 200 meters and as part of the 4×100 meters team — and is the reigning national champion in the 100 meters and 200 meters. He has spoken openly about his desire to run “the double” in Tokyo, but he has yet to break the 10-second mark in the 100 meters this year. Eleven American men have recorded better times this year alone.
But his personal best in the race is 9.86, which is the third-fastest time in the field. The question is: Can he do it again when the stakes are highest?
Known equally for his showmanship as he is for his considerable talent, Lyles is one of the biggest stars off of the track as well as on. He has become revered for his willingness to use his voice for social justice issues he believes in. In an effort to raise awareness about racial inequalities in the U.S., he paid homage to Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ iconic stance at the 1968 Olympics, wearing a black glove on his right hand and raising it while being introduced from the starting blocks ahead of a race in Monaco in 2020. He has worn the glove for every race since.
Is Sha’Carri Richardson the next Flo-Jo?
You might not yet be familiar with Richardson’s name, but trust us when we say, you will be soon — and you’ve probably seen her work if you’ve spent any time on social media recently.
At the Miramar Invitational in April, the 21-year-old recorded a jaw-dropping 10.72-seconds in the 100 meters — then the sixth-fastest time EVER in the race and the best mark since 2016.
“My coach will be proud, but he’ll say I still have more work to do, and I agree,” said Richardson after the race. “My season is going to be unbelievable.”
– USATF (@usatf) April 10, 2021
Richardson, who turned pro in 2019 following her sensational freshman season at LSU, enters the trials with the fastest qualifying times in the 100 meters and the 200 meters. Looking to become the first American woman to win the 100-meter crown since 1996 — and be dubbed “the fastest woman in the world” — the Tokyo Games could serve as a coronation of sorts for the new queen of the track. (Of course, Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce might have other plans — she has since edged Richardson’s time with a 10.63 earlier this month.)
And due to her lightning-fast speed and colorful hair and nails, expect the growing comparisons to Florence Griffith-Joyner, the fastest woman to ever run the 100-meter race, to only increase.
The controversy of Justin Gatlin
Gatlin became the oldest man to win an Olympic medal in the 100 meters in 2016 when, at 34, he finished in second place, behind Bolt.
Now, at 39, he will try to make even more history as he attempts to qualify to his fourth Olympic team and become the oldest man to win a medal in any race on the track.
Gatlin made his Olympic debut in 2004, and was suspended during the 2008 Games due to failed drug tests. In Rio he was booed by the crowd when he stepped onto the track.
Five years later, Gatlin is certainly a contender to earn a Tokyo medal. He took home the silver medal at the 2019 world championships in the 100 meters and was part of the title-winning 4x100m relay team. He has also notched two sub-10.0 second races this season and recorded victories at the Tom Jones Memorial Invitational (beating Lyles and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Andre De Grasse of Canada) and at an Olympic test event in Tokyo.
Trayvon Bromell’s comeback story of the century
After recording one of the top 10 times in history in the 100 meters in 2015, Bromell was expected to be a breakout star of the Rio Games. But an Achilles’ injury derailed his training leading into the Olympics, and his performance suffered as a result.
And, it got worse. He tore his Achilles while diving to the finish line during the 4×100 meters relay in hopes of securing the bronze medal. But, the team was disqualified following an improper baton exchange during the first pass. He was carted off of the track and left Rio empty-handed and with a devastating prognosis.
Bromell has said doctors told him he would never return to his peak form. He was sidelined from competition for the next two years.
Finally, five years later, Bromell is back, and more driven than ever. The 25-year-old recorded his personal best earlier this month with a 9.77 in the 100 meters — a world-leading time and the fastest qualifying time going into the trials by .08 of a second. He qualified for the 200 meters but has been scratched and will focus solely on the 100 meters.
Despite all odds, Bromell is the favorite to win gold in the first post-Usain Bolt Olympics. But first he will have to get through an impressive field of American sprinters who are all chasing the same goal.
Just how deep is this field? Americans hold the top six fastest times in the world for the event.
The intense Muhammad-McLaughlin hurdles rivalry
Dalilah Muhammad, the reigning Olympic gold medalist in the 400-meter hurdles, has somehow only gotten better since her triumph in Rio. Muhammad broke the longstanding world record at the national championships in 2019 — and then shattered her new mark just months later at the world championships with a blistering 52.16 time.
The 31-year-old has raced just twice this year, but if she’s looking for a test to help prepare her for Tokyo, she’ll likely just have to look to Sydney McLaughlin in the lane next to her.
How fierce has the competition been between Muhammad and McLaughlin? When Muhammad broke the world record at the 2019 world championships, second-place McLaughlin did too. Of course, only Muhammad’s name counted in the record books, but it exemplified how little separated the two.
McLaughlin burst onto the scene in 2016 when she became the youngest American to compete for the track team since 1972 as a 16-year-old. She lost in the semifinals in Rio but has become one of the most dominant hurdlers in the world since.
While Muhammad has bested her in the highest-stakes races in the past, it’s McLaughlin who has recorded the best time this season at 52.83 seconds. With Muhammad and McLaughlin ranked No. 1 and 2 in the world, and with fellow American Shamier Little at No. 3, you’re going to want to get your popcorn ready for this race.
The rivalries you might not know about in men’s shot put
Three of the top five ranked male shot putters in the world are Americans – with three more ranked in the top 20. This could easily be one of the most competitive events at trials, and earning a coveted spot to Tokyo could be nearly as challenging as winning a medal later this summer.
It should be a battle among reigning Olympic gold medalist Ryan Crouser, currently ranked No. 2 in the world; Joe Kovacs, the 2015 and 2019 world champion; and Darrell Hill, who won the national title in 2018.
And with Josh Olayinka Awotunde, Payton Otterdahl and Nick Ponzio not far behind them, this could provide more drama than your favorite reality show.
Vashti Cunningham’s famous coach — and high-jump sovereignty
The 23-year-old Cunningham has won every outdoor and indoor national title in the high jump since 2017 and is the fourth-ranked woman in the world. Having earned a bronze medal at the 2019 world championships and with the best qualifying mark by .06 meters, Cunningham looks to be a near-lock to make her second Olympic team.
The daughter of NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, who also serves as her coach, she will be able to fully step out of her dad’s shadow and into her own spotlight with a successful summer.
Ross vs. Norman in men’s 400 meters
Randolph Ross and Michael Norman have recorded the two fastest times in the world this season at 43.85 and 44.27 respectively, and could both be among those on the podium in Tokyo.
But first, the two will have square off at trials — and take on yet another incredibly deep pool of athletes. Just how stacked is the U.S. in this event? Americans make up for all of the top six fastest times in 2021 and eight of the top 10. There are five more Americans with times in the top 20.
While earning one of the three spots will certainly be a challenge, on the plus side for those who do make it, the relay team should be the overwhelming favorite in Tokyo.
The end of the 800-meter drought?
The U.S. hasn’t produced an Olympic medalist — female or male — in the 800 meters since 1992, and the last time an American woman won gold was in 1968.
So, yes, this isn’t exactly a marquee event for the American squad. But with six women representing the red, white and blue in the top 20 in the world for fastest times this year, not only will this event be compelling, dare we say, there might even be an Olympic medal contender or two in here.
Ajeé Wilson, the winner of the last three national titles in the event, has been seen as the country’s best hope for the race for the past several years. The 27-year-old lost in the semifinals at the 2016 Olympics but has since earned two bronze medals at the world championships. She currently owns the American record in the race, has the top qualifying time and is ranked in No. 1 in the world.
But perhaps no one has gotten fans more excited than 19-year-old Athing Mu. The Texas A&M freshman broke records in the 800 meters and the 400 meters this year — and recorded the second-fastest time in the world in the 800 meters and the fourth best in the 400 meters. She has chosen to just focus on the 800 meters in her first Olympic trials and could make a serious impact in her one event.
Names to remember
Do you recall what you were doing during sophomore year of high school? No matter what you say, for most of us, it certainly wasn’t qualifying for the Olympic trials. But that’s exactly what 15-year-old Sophia Gorriaran did in February with a 2:02.44 time in the 800 meters.
Her time is more than four seconds behind Wilson’s top qualifying mark, and she has a remote chance at best at making the Olympic team, but we have a feeling we’ll be seeing a lot more of her down the road.
Gorriaran is the youngest in the entire field of competitors and one of just six high-schoolers competing — but she’ll be one of three competing in the 800 meters. Roisin Willis and Juliette Whittaker are both rising seniors and also met the qualifying standard.
On the men’s side, Erriyon Knighton broke the world junior record in the 200 meters — set previously by Usain Bolt in 2003 — at a meet in May and holds the 10th-best time in the world in the race this year entering trials. Fellow teen sprinter Jaylen Slade broke the high school indoor record in the 200 meters in February and has qualified for both the 200 and 100 meters.
Hobbs Kessler broke the high school record in the 1,500 meters with a time of 3:34.36 and is one of just five Americans to have achieved the Olympic standard. In an interview with Outside, he said he initially thought simply qualifying for the trials would be a great experience but now has loftier goals.
“My thinking is that, if I’m there, I might as well have a run at the team,” Kessler said. “It’s a win-win because if I make the Olympic team that would be awesome, but if I don’t, I’m only 18 and will have a lot more attempts at it. I feel like I’m in a very cool spot where there’s no pressure, but I might as well give it a go.”