Thursday, August 9, 2012

London Games 2012: Allyson Felix wins 200m

A wonderful night for the USA's athletics team turned sour when Carmelita Jeter was questioned about her links with the controversial former coach, Mark Block. After finishing third in the 200m, Jeter became the first USA woman to win Olympic medals in both sprints at the same Games since Florence Griffith-Joyner in 1988. Block, the husband of the former world 200m champion Zhanna Pintusevich-Block, was banned from athletics for 10 years in 2011 because of his connections to the Balco doping scandal. "I am going to count to 10," Jeter said. "I am up here, I am a woman who has a medal in the 100m and 200m now, and for me to be asked that bothers me." Jeter explained that Block was a close friend of hers, and that "whatever happened with Mark Block before I came to Mark Block, has absolutely nothing to do with me".

Block founded Total Sports Management, the company that represents Jeter. "I love that man, I love his family, I love his daughter," Jeter said. "Yes, he was banned, but that does not mean he cannot be a manager or an agent. He comes to meets that I am at because he is a great supporter of mine."

That spat should not overshadow what was a superb 200m final. The winner was Jeter's team-mate Allyson Felix, who ran 21.88sec and became the first woman from the USA to win an Olympic sprint title since Gail Devers in 1996. Her first reaction when she crossed the line was not joy, but relief.

After winning silver medals in the 200m at two successive Olympic Games, each time behind her great rival from Jamaica, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Felix had finally won the gold. To do it she did not have to beat only Campbell-Brown but one of the greatest line-ups ever assembled in the history of women's sprinting, packed with two Olympic champions in Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Sanya Richards-Ross and two world champions in Campbell-Brown and Jeter. As the silver medalist Fraser-Pryce put it: "If they ever put a field like this together again, I'm never going to run another 200m."

In 2004 Felix had lost the Olympic final to Campbell-Brown by 0.13sec, and in 2008 she lost again, by just four-hundredths more. As she stood by her blocks on Wednesday night, she ran the memories of that defeat in Beijing through her mind, just as she has done every day since. "Before the race I thought about Beijing," she said. "I thought about crossing the line there and seeing my family and breaking down. I embrace those defeats, they are what have pushed me on all these years, and they are what makes this so sweet."

The rivalry between Campbell-Brown and Felix is as great as any in the history of their sport, though there is nothing more to it than their battles on the track, neither trash-talks nor plays up for the press. They just race. Between them they have won every single Olympic and world 200m title since 2004. Before Campbell-Brown had taken two Olympic titles, Felix three world titles. But there was no doubt who was happier with their lot. Felix said she would give up all three of hers for just one of Campbell-Brown's. "I'm happy for her," Campbell-Brown said. "I knew how bad she wanted it."

So desperate did Felix get for an Olympic gold that last year she took up 400m running, thinking it might be an easier route to success in London. It was not. The endurance work robbed her of her sprinting speed. Caught between the two events at the world championships in 2011, she won neither. Campbell-Brown took gold in the 200m, but she was not the only one who took advantage.

Richards-Ross and Fraser-Pryce, both sensing an opportunity, decided to target the 200m too. Neither had ever competed in a major championships at that distance before. In the space of three weeks in June and July, Fraser-Pryce, Richards-Ross and Jeter set new personal bests, and there was only two-hundredths of a second between them. All of a sudden the field looked a little crowded. Campbell-Brown was still queen. She was trying to become the first woman in history to win sprint titles at three successive Games. She failed, but finished fourth. Richards-Ross came fifth.

After her chastening season in 2011, Felix switched back to speed training and started doubling-up in the 100m rather than the 400m. She finished fifth in the final last Saturday, but in a new personal best of 10.89sec. That switch, she said, had made the difference, making her more aggressive in the 200m, where once she says would have been "more complacent". Felix, the son of a church minister, reads her favourite passage from Philippians before every race. It goes: "If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me." Never more so than on Wednesday night.