Felix and Richards are tough competitors
Which of these well-spoken, fast young athletes should be the poster woman of track, Sanya Richards or Allyson Felix?
By Philip Hersh, Special to The Times
August 30, 2007
OSAKA, Japan – .They’re duking it out on the track in the 200 meters at the world championships. They’re dueling for attention between now and the 2008 Olympics. They don’t have much truck with each other, save for a few words to the media about how much each respects the other’s ability.
So which of these young, well-spoken, attractive and fast young athletes do you think will be the poster woman for USA Track & Field at the 2008 Olympics, Sanya Richards or Allyson Felix?
Richards? She’s 22, a native Jamaican who lives in Texas, the one who broke a 22-year-old U.S. record in the 400 meters last year, the silver medalist in that event at the 2005 world championships, the one who ran Wednesday with a $20,000 diamond brooch pinned to her singlet. The trinket – given to her as a good luck charm by the boss of the Japanese division of a country she represents – fell off during the race, but was recovered later.
“I won’t wear it again until the medal ceremony,” Richards said.
She sounds pretty confident about getting a medal, even if the 200 isn’t her best event. And why not? Didn’t she scramble onto the U.S. team in the 200 after a tearful failure in her race, the 400, at the U.S. championships?
What about Felix? She’s, 21, a Los Angeleno through and through, the one who won the 200 at nationals and the 2005 worlds. And she can give Richards a run in the quarter. Did it already, knocking off Richards at a race in Stockholm a couple weeks ago.
“It’s becoming an awesome rivalry, what the sport needs,” Richards said. “It’s a love-hate relationship. We totally respect each other as athletes, but we’re not best friends.”
You could have a Sanya vs. Allyson meet in races from 100 through 400 meters. This is how their best times match up this season:
*100. Felix, 11.01 seconds, Richards, 11.05. Call it a dead heat because Felix had a tailwind, Richards a headwind.
*200. Felix 22.18, Richards, 22.31. Richards closing the gap here.
*400. Richards, 49.52; Felix, 49.70. Felix won their only head-to-head meeting by one-hundredth of a second, but Richards has fought health problems much of the season.
This choice isn’t easy. Impossible not to like both of them. But I have to go with my heart and, well, Allyson and I, we’ll always have Paris.
Sure, the only time we spent more than a few minutes together was during the 90-minute bus ride from the world’s worst airport, Charles de Gaulle, to an accreditation center for the 2003 World Track and Field Championships.
But there was something special about the experience. I saw the person and athlete Felix has become.
Felix, in profile, resembles the iconic bust of Nefertiti, the legendary Egyptian queen, who lived about 3,500 years ago. Nefertiti’s name means, “a beautiful woman has arrived.”
That is how I remember Felix arriving in Paris. Poised, talented, self-assured – the icon of a contemporary young woman.
She was 17 then, a freshly minted graduate of Los Angeles Baptist High School. By that age, most star athletes have been coddled and swaddled, their every need met by someone else, their inability to cope with the ordinary tasks of daily life already compromised.
Felix had flown from the West Coast to Paris by herself, collected her bags by herself, found her way to the correct bus by herself. Such things aren’t easy, even for experienced travelers, in the fog created by jet lag.
When I asked about flying solo, in multiple senses of the word, Felix said that was the sort of independence her parents had raised her to have.
It showed in other ways.
During the 2003 world meet, in which she was eliminated early in the 200 meters, Felix announced she had signed a contract with adidas, the sporting goods company, and would not run for the University of Southern California.
But she did not run from USC. Felix enrolled as a student, one on track to get her degree in elementary education in December. That is just 4½ years, despite the distractions of being a globetrotting athlete who won the 2004 Olympic silver medal in the 200 and followed that a year later with the world title.
Felix won’t turn 22 until November. This is her third world championships.
“It’s weird,” she said. "People consider us [her and Richards] veterans. I don’t feel I have been around that long.
“But it definitely helped me to do the first one at 17. I feel really comfortable because I feel like I have a lot of experience.”
Her steady climb from a prep sensation featured in Sports Illustrated to veteran runner turned a little bumpy last year. A combination of a leg injury and strep throat caused her not only to miss much of the season but also to lose eight pounds from a body with that had not an excess ounce before that.
“I was looking anorexic,” she said. “I am still struggling to put on weight.”
It doesn’t help that she is gobbling up events voraciously, and that one of them is the 400 meters. Or that her coach is Bobby Kersee, who knows the 400 probably is her best event and just about kills her with training that will prove he is right.
It didn’t help that Justin Gatlin, her very close friend, was busted last year for doping. You could hear the dismay and reproach in Felix’s voice when she talked about it a year later. Where someone else might have ducked the issue entirely, using only Gatlin’s line that he never knowingly took the substance, she was typically her own person.
“You don’t see things like that coming,” she said, “especially someone that you are really close to. It was definitely a big personal blow to me. I’m still his friend, and I’m always going to be his friend, but I can’t, you know, support the guy. I’m definitely disappointed he’s in the situation.”
She is typically forthright about Richards. “We’re not close,” she said.
They should be very close at the finish in Friday’s 200 final. Then they should be running together on the 4 x 400 relay. Then they will be working in tandem to have the 2008 Olympic schedule changed so they can have Beijing showdowns in the 200 and 400, impossible the way things are now.
"I’m hoping our performances will speak more than anything we can write to make our case,’’ Richards said.
On the track, each is making eloquent statements.
Philip Hersh covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.