Mike Rowbottom

As Tweets go it’s brief. It comes from the world 200 metres world champion, Noah Lyles, and it says this: "Noah without a crowd = 19.74 Noah with a crowd = 19.52."

The 24-year-old from Gainesville, Florida was referring to his performance in winning the men’s 200 metres at Saturday’s Wanda Diamond League meeting in Eugene, Oregon – the first big athletics gathering since the Tokyo 2020 Games - in 19.52sec.

The first time was the one he recorded in taking bronze in the Tokyo Olympic final behind gold medallist Andre De Grasse, who clocked a Canadian record of 19.62, and his fellow American Kenny Bednarek, who ran 19.68.

Having seen the Olympic race actually, and the second virtually, I can confirm that it was indeed like watching two different athletes in action.

In 2019, I was at the Lausanne Diamond League meeting where Lyles floated clear of a top class field to record his personal best of 19.50sec, putting him fourth on the all-time list behind fellow countryman Michael Johnson’s 19.32, set in winning the 1996 Olympic title in Atlanta, the 19.26 clocked by Jamaica’s Yohan Blake at Brussels in 2011, and the current world record of 19.19 set by Blake’s compatriot Usain Bolt at the 2009 World Athletics Championships.

Later that year, in the stifling heat of Doha, Lyles, who had won three consecutive Diamond League titles before he was 23, continued to float on as he won world gold in 19.83 from De Grasse, who clocked 19.95.

Next came the Dark Ages for sport - the COVID-19 pandemic - and the exuberant and multi-talented Lyles, whose star was not so much rising as rocketing, seemed more affected by it than some of his fellow athletes.

His occasional outings onto a track during this time were rather subdued, even though in July 2020 at the so-called Inspiration Games in Zurich, which took place with strict social distancing rules, the clock stopped on his solo run over 200m at a literally unbelievable 18.70 - a time that was soon found to have been for a distance of 185 metres after he had started from the wrong line.

The following month, Lyles distinguished himself in a different arena as he spoke publicly about his mental health. "Recently, I decided to get on antidepressant medication," he tweeted. "That was one of the best decisions I have made in a while. Since then I have been able to think without the dark undertone in mind of nothing matters. Thank you God for mental Health."

The reaction of American college cross country coach Peter Early to this news will no doubt have been widely shared: "I doubt anyone would have thought 'Noah Lyles seems depressed'," he tweeted. "Which shows how these things can literally impact anyone. Do not be afraid to ask for help people."

This season, as the sport has returned closer to normality, Lyles has been active without appearing to possess his vital spark of old. Until Eugene, where it seemed as if the real Noah Lyles stood up.

There was an earlier tweet in the immediate aftermath of that victory: "Every time I lose I come back stronger 19.52!!!!!!"

In clocking the fastest time of the season, a blink within his best, Lyles left Tokyo silver medallist Kenny Bednarek in his wake. And the look on his face as he crossed the line, uncharacteristically severe and intent, showed how much this re-statement of his talent meant to him.

In fact, it was a good night for the entire Lyles family as younger brother Josephus finished third in a personal best of 20.03. The elder brother’s intensity soon gave way to transparent love and joy as he embraced his sibling.

Speaking after the race, Lyles said: "I wasn't really feeling that my mindset was right for today but I feel like five sessions of therapy I was able to let go of what happened in Tokyo and convince myself that I know I'm upset and I know I'm in great shape to run and come out here and be able to put it on the track."

And then he took in the topic to which he later referred in his brief tweet: "I don't think you understand how lifeless it was in Tokyo to have no crowd there. It was dead silent. To come here and see a whole lot of people who love track, it was just amazing to see."

Chelsea's new signing Romelu Lukaku celebrates after Saturday's victory over Arsenal in the Premier League match in front of a full crowd at Emirates Stadium ©Getty Images
Chelsea's new signing Romelu Lukaku celebrates after Saturday's victory over Arsenal in the Premier League match in front of a full crowd at Emirates Stadium ©Getty Images

In these pandemic times, many sportsmen and women have reflected - and have been endlessly asked to reflect – upon the experience of competing in empty stadiums.

In football, that most tribal of sports, the notion of home advantage has been taken apart and examined in fine detail. As in some scientific experiment, passionate supporters have been removed from the exercise, leaving – what? – home geography, familiarity as the only logical factors remaining in favour of the host team.

And on many occasions, all over the world, the home team has reaped no benefit when home fans are absent.

It isn’t a science, though, and we will never know whether the sequences of unimpressive home footballing form are due to spectators or other factors, just as we will never know the exact inspirational power to Lyles of living, breathing, cheering people in the commodious new stands of Hayward Field.

It’s an intangible unprovable. But it’s also a thing of beauty. And as – fingers at least crossed – the crowds come back to track and field, with the Wanda Diamond League circuit moving on to Lausanne again this week and then on to Paris on Saturday, it bodes well for rising levels of performance for Lyles and his fellow runners, jumpers and vaulters.

Which is nice.