EUGENE, Oregon -- On the seventh day of the controversy, finally there was a gasp that punched a hole in the clouds. (The metaphorical clouds, not the actual ones). It happened roughly eight seconds into the women's 200-meter final Saturday evening at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials at Hayward Field. A starter's gun had been fired and eight women had exploded from metal blocks anchored to the pebbled orange track. They spread out through the turn in a stagger that looked like -- and always looks like -- an accordion fan.
There was Carmelita Jeter, the 32-year-old champion of the 100 meters at these trials, out in lane eight. "I knew I had to get out,'' she would say later. There was trials 400-meter champion Sanya Richards-Ross, reborn after more than four years fighting a mysterious and stubborn illness, in the middle of the track in lane four. "I felt a little sluggish,'' she would say. There was Tianna Madison, the former long jump world champion who has been the surprise of U.S sprinting in 2012 and made the Olympic Team in the 100 meters, in lane five. She never says anything. There was Jeneba Tarmoh in lane seven; she is part of the The Controversy.
The 200 meters carries its own unique viewing mechanics. Spectators follow runners through the curve and apply a panicky, uncertain geometry to their positions. Unless an inside runner totally overhauls an outside one, it's difficult to discern who is leading. As the field reaches even terms in the straightway -- and sometimes slightly before -- it becomes apparent who is in control of the race.
So it was that less than 10 seconds into Saturday's 200-meter final, there was a gasp, and that gasp is the sweetest sound in track and field. Sweeter than the roar that erupts when a long jumper lands deep in the pit or when a pole vaulter clears a big bar. More instantaneous than the roar that builds during a stirring stretch run, like when Galen Rupp overhauled Bernard Lagat to win last Thursday night's 5,000 meters. The gasp is the signature sound of track and field, an emotional response that escapes from the crowd's collective throat, almost by accident.
It was Allyson Felix who ignited the gasp. Running in the gently curving lane six, Felix had started solidly and worked through 40 meters without gaining significantly on Tarmoh in seven or Jeter in eight. Suddenly in the middle of the turn, Felix began to accelerate, her day-glo, traffic cop vest (or Oregon Duck) yellow high socks flashing behind her in a blur. When she left the turn and reached the 100-meter starting line she was clear of the field and the gap was growing with every stride.
Controversy has hung over these trials for a week, since Felix and Tarmoh dead-heated for third place in the final of the 100 meters in 11.068 seconds (behind Jeter and Madison, whose performances have been completely overshadowed). Since USA Track and Field, the governing body for the sport in America, had no procedure in place to break a tie for the last position on the Olympic team,
One among many unintended consequences of this ongoing decision is that it has pulled attention away from the rest of the meet. Not entirely, but in subtle ways that track and field can ill afford. On Saturday, high jumper Amy Acuff, who will be 37 in 12 days, been retired for the last two years, and has been training at a high school in Austin, Texas -- ``Under the radar, all by myself,'' she said -- made her fifth Olympic team, which only five other people have done.
Aries Merritt won the 110-meter hurdles and reigning world champion Jason Richardson was second, both earning Olympic team berths and becoming the 13th and 14th men in history to run faster than 13 seconds in one of the most unforgiving events in the sports. Yet they were merely the opening act, because Felix and Tarmoh would appear again. They had run twice since the Dead Heat and both times had been whisked through the media zone by coach Bob Kersee (he coaches both Felix and Tarmoh), like celebrities stalked by paparazzi.
And ever so slowly, it was forgotten why Felix was here. Why Felix had run three 100-meter races this spring. Think back to last September, when Felix ran both the 400 meters and 200 meters at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, finishing a very close second in the former and a not-so-close third in the latter. Here is what she said back then: "Next year I'm going to be more focused on the 200. I'm not so sure about the double, because that 200 is very important to me. There will be a different mindset next year. I'll talk to [coach] Bobby [Kersee]. It's always different in an Olympic year, everything bumps up a notch. But my biggest thing is that 200."
A day later, after talking with Kersee, Felix was already backing off. And in an April interview, she said, "I definitely want to do two events.'' says Felix.
And this: "And one of them is going to be the 200.''
Media spent the spring speculating on whether she would run the 100 or 400, but eventually it became obvious that she would run the 100, especially when she ran a personal best of 10.92 seconds in Doha on May 11. But the focus drifted toward whether Felix could medal in those two events, much like in Eugene the focus has been on what would happen with the 100-meter Dead Heat Decision. But these things were always secondary.
And that is what Felix hammered home after the gasp. She has run at least 125 200-meter races since her freshman year in high school. (Thanks to the invaluable Finnish website tilastopaja.org for keeping track of these things) and on her game, she is one of the most graceful, women's half-lap runners in history. (A female Tommie Smith, of a kind). That's what she looked like on Saturday, hitting the finish line in 21.69 seconds. That produced another gasp. (Jeter finished second in a personal best of 22.11 and Richards-Ross was third in 22.22; both are now on the team in two events).
Kersee trains Felix every day at UCLA. "I thought she was ready for something around 21.80,'' he said after the race. "But with Allyson, when those first 40 meters are good, there's a good chance you're going to see something special.''
Felix's winning time was the sixth-fastest in history. The world record is Florence Griffith Joyner's untouchable 21.34 from the 1988 Olympics. Only Flo-Jo (who also ran 21.56 in Seoul), Marion Jones (21.62 in 1998, technically before she started using PEDs), and Merlene Ottey of Jamaica (21.64 in 1991 and 21.66 in 1990), have run faster. The
Felix's public persona is relentlessly composed, the product of having spent a decade as a professional athlete, from her first world championship in Paris in 2003, when she was 17 years old. But she is also emotional; she wept outside drug testing in Beijing in 2008, and near the media area last week when she thought she had missed the team in the 100 meters (
On Saturday, that emotion was thrown into her race. "I just wanted to leave it out on the track today.'' And from a more technical perspective, there's no doubt that Felix's 100s have made her 200 better. She is arguably the best American female sprinter in history
It does not mean she will give up her spot in the 100 meters. Felix and Tarmoh both said that they would meet Sunday night and discuss their options, with Kersee and Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, USATF chief of sport performance. When asked if he expected Felix to double, Kersee said, "She's an athlete, athletes want to do athletic things.'' But he also said he would leave the decision up to Felix and Tarmoh, because, "They're both my athletes, it's like asking if my two kids were drowning, which one would I rescue.''
If Felix and Tarmoh choose a runoff race for the third spot in the 100, Kersee said that runoff would "absolutely not,'' happen on Sunday, the last official day of the trials. Sources had told me earlier on Saturday that the race might take place on Monday. I asked Kersee if Monday would work, and he said, "Too soon.''
Felix and Tarmoh promised to deliver their message soon. Whatever that message, it won't be as forceful as the one Felix sent on Saturday.