<
>

Can Allyson Felix save track and field?

6/30/2011

She's strong and graceful and wondrous to watch. She's an Olympic relay gold medalist and a world champion. She's the face of her sport, potentially a Madison Avenue darling, and an inspiration to young women within -- and beyond -- track and field.

And she's not Marion Jones.

She's Allyson Felix; and if it seems unfair to connect the 25-year-old sprinter with the disgraced former queen of women's sports in America, forget it.

Felix is a two-time Olympic silver medalist in the 200 meters, the reigning three-time 200-meter world champion and, as of last weekend, the American women's 400-meter champion. And yet, she is still running in Jones' shadow and knows it. In fact, she embraces it as though she's on the final turn -- boldly and fearlessly. "Whatever I can do to prove I'm clean, I'm willing do it," she has said. "No matter what time I have to wake up or drive or whatever."

Felix is referring to drug testing, of course. Three years ago, she, along with several other top U.S. Olympians, joined Project Believe, an initiative launched by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to prove that at least some elite athletes are clean. (Participation is voluntary; MIchael Phelps is among those who signed up.) The athletes in the program agree to take extensive blood and urine tests beyond those required by WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Clearly, Project Believe, which I applaud, was created in a desperate attempt to restore confidence and integrity to a sport so diminished by drug use that, like baseball, almost every remarkable performance is surrounded by doubts and whispers. Yeah, but was she … clean?

Jones, of course, was the most valuable (in "finger quotes"!) architect of those doubts -- the most remarkable American runner of her generation, and, ultimately, the poster-child for a sport gone dirty. She won five medals (three gold and two bronze) at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and, with her engaging personality, was poised to elevate track's popularity in much the way the flamboyant sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner did in dominating the sport in the 1980s.

And then she fell, mightily. In 2007, Jones admitted using performance-enhancing drugs prior to the Sydney Games and then, in a panic, lying about it to the feds. She was suspended from the sport, stripped of her medals (as were her innocent 4x100 and 4x400 relay teammates) and served six months in a federal prison for perjury.

She remains the highest-profile athlete through the "drug era" of sports to pay so dearly. Now, almost three years after she walked out of that Fort Worth, Texas, prison -- a former Olympian, now an ex-con -- Jones speaks openly and honestly to youth and community groups about her failings, and is trying to revive her athletic career as a member of the WNBA's Tulsa Shock.

Few were as hurt by Jones' disgraceful tumble as Felix, for whom Jones had been an inspiration. "I looked up to [Jones] even before I came into the sport … and then you find out it was all a lie," Felix, 24, recently told the Times of London. "It was personally devastating for me."

Now, Felix finds herself as the best-positioned athlete to make the nation care about track and field again. If anyone can revive our passion for a sport with a legacy rich in historic champions such as Jesse Owens, Bob Beamon, Bruce Jenner, Edwin Moses, Carl Lewis, Evelyn Ashford and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Felix is that person.

She is also the U.S. athlete most likely to make us forget about Marion Jones.

Yes, Usain Bolt made us watch again. He is the Tiger Woods (pre-scandal, of course) of the sport. When he runs, we watch, and from the edge of our seat. With his gifts of power and unworldly speed, he's a world-record threat every time he laces up those cool golden shoes. To borrow Larry Bird's famous remark just prior to the NBA's 3-point shooting contest at the 1986 All-Star Weekend: Man, who's comin' in second?

And when he strikes "the pose," we love it. It ain't braggin' when you back it up.

So we tune in Bolt. Felix has a chance to make us care.

Last weekend, she won the 400 at the U.S. Track & Field Championships in Eugene, Ore., creating a conundrum only slightly less daunting than, say, restoring luster and integrity to her sport. She must decide whether to compete in both the 200- and the 400-meters at the World Track & Field Championships later this summer in South Korea -- and ultimately at the 2012 Olympics in London. (Felix didn't run the 200 in Eugene, as she already has a wild-card entry into the world championships as the defending champion.)

The risk is that running the 400 prior to the 200 in the major international meets might affect her prospects in the event she dominates. She likely will be the Olympic gold-medal favorite at 200 meters.

The reward?

Juicy drama -- the sort of intriguing challenge that draws fans beyond the die-hard track faithful who remained with the sport through its dark cloud. In the 400, Felix would be matched against American Sanya Richards-Ross, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist and the gold medalist in the event at the 2009 world championships. (A hip injury kept her out of the 400 at the nationals last weekend.)

The prospect of two dynamic American champions going head-to-head for gold in London is the stuff of which up-close-and-personals are made.

I don't know if Felix can accomplish the daring double. But I do know this: She's The One -- the only one right now who can mend the pain we felt when Jones betrayed us, her sport, her family, herself.

The only one who can attract us to the journey, entice us to cheer the sport again and … believe.

Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

MORE COMMENTARY »