Phil Sheridan: Allyson Felix facing pressure in London

Posted: August 04, 2012

LONDON - Allyson Felix is not Marion Jones, which is good in obvious ways and not so good in other ways.

We know now that Jones' incredible performance in Sydney was just that - not credible - because of performance-enhancing drugs. Felix remains free and clear of suspicion.

But it's a little like baseball. We know Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire cheated. We're pretty sure Sammy Sosa did, too. The Steroid Era is gone, and it took those mind-blowing 60- and 70-home run seasons with it.

Jones was the Bonds of her sport's own Steroid Era. She was even implicated by the same investigation into Victor Conte's Balco lab. But even if we can't really respect her larger-than-life performances, we can still miss the thrills and excitement.

As the track and field competition gets rolling in London, there are precious few stars in the sport. Certainly there is no one swaggering in with a stated goal to win five gold medals, as Jones famously predicted in Sydney. (She settled for three gold and two bronze - all of which have since been stripped from her.)

Those extra-ambitious programs - Jones did the 100 and 200 meters, two relays, and the long jump - have become more common over in the swim meet that dominates the first week of Olympic competition.

Felix is about as close as the United States has to a crossover star. She can take another step in that direction if she is able to win medals in both the 100 and 200 - especially if they're gold medals. But Felix's opportunity comes with some risk, and it has nothing to do with doping tests or syringes.

If she does well in the 100, she'll be a heroine. If she doesn't, she'll be seen as a villain.

Jones put pressure on herself by declaring her Drive for Five before Sydney. Felix had pressure put upon her through circumstances mostly, but not entirely, beyond her control.

Five weeks ago, at the U.S. track and field trials in Eugene, Ore., Felix just missed qualifying in the 100. Carmelita Jeter won the race, Tianna Madison was second, and Jeneba Tarmoh claimed the final Olympic spot by narrowly defeating Felix for third place.

That was the result when everyone walked off the track. But a review of the race concluded that Felix and Tarmoh finished in a dead heat. It was a tie. A runoff was scheduled, then canceled when Tarmoh withdrew. Felix received the spot in the Olympic 100 competition, which began Friday. Felix won her heat easily in 11.01 seconds, advancing to Saturday's semifinals. The final is scheduled for later Saturday.

Felix was unhappy with her start, but that's not a bad result, considering she's lugging Tarmoh on her back.

"Some people expected me to give up the spot," Felix said. "People see me as a nice girl. I gave up my spot before in the 100 meters. It is not just about me. I had other people in mind, my family."

Her coach's wife, who just so happens to be Jackie Joyner-Kersee, told her: "You cannot give this up. We have worked too hard."

Tarmoh politely withdrew from the run-off, then publicly said she felt wronged by USA Track and Field.

"Tensions remain," Felix said.

Her stronger event is the 200, but it's tough to blame Felix for trying for the double. This is the Olympics, after all. The whole enterprise is about striving for greatness on the world's biggest stage.

Tarmoh could have accepted the run-off and earned the spot in the Olympics. She could have beaten Felix cleanly. For that matter, she could have beaten Madison, who decided to forgo the long jump and focus on sprints. She has lost 20 pounds in 11 months and transformed herself into a medal contender.

Funny, because in the days of Jones and, before her, Florence Griffith-Joyner, sprinters seemed to add muscle mass rather than slim down.

Point is, Felix is not a villain for seizing a chance to accomplish something special here. If she medals, the whole trials brouhaha will be part of her story, an obstacle she overcame. But if she doesn't, people will wonder whether Tarmoh would have done better.

Whatever happens in the 100, Felix is counting on a breakthrough in the 200. She has silver medals in the event from Athens and Beijing. She lowered her personal best from 21.81 to 21.69 seconds at the trials in June.

"It has been five years since my [previous] best time," Felix said. "When you get to those times, you seem to chip away at it slowly. It gets discouraging. Having such a breakthrough is exciting. I hope this third time is a charm."

It is supposed to be this hard to be the best in the world. Felix is getting there the hard way. That's better than the way Jones and her contemporaries did it.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Sheridanscribe. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

 

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