Tomorrow morning—at least here in Colombia, anyway—the Olympic final of the women’s 4 x 400 metres relay will occur. It is widely believed to be the swan song of renowned American Allyson Felix’s Olympic career. Having already claimed the bronze medal in yesterday’s 400 metres final, she moved ahead of Jamaican legend Merlene Ottey for most Olympic medals by a female athlete in the sport of athletics…or track and field, as it is commonly known. With Sydney McLaughlin (the 2020 Olympic champion and world record holder in the 400 metres hurdles), Dalilah Muhammad (the 2016 Olympic champion and reigning world champion in the 400 metres hurdles), and the phenom Athing Mu (the 2020 Olympic champion in the 800 metres) on the team, it’s a sure bet that the American women will medal. In fact, it’s probably a sure thing that they will win and perhaps break the world and Olympic records set by the USSR at the Seoul Olympics. All of this means that Allyson Felix will become the most decorated Olympian in athletics (or track and field) history and it bothers me. That brings me to this week’s moment in the Flashback Friday series: the controversial 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials women’s 100 metres final.
How I first came across this moment? As I have every Olympic Trials in athletics (or track and field) since my days of running for Wiggins Park on Birmingham’s Westside in the early-to-mid 90s, I watched it live on NBC…this particularly year via AFN Sports as I was in the first month of final Air Force assignment in South Korea. On the famed Heyward Field track, Carmelita Jeter and Tianna Madison easily took the 1st and 2nd positions, respectively, as they dashed to the line. Trailing them were Nike teammates and training partners, Jeneba Tarmoh and Allyson Felix. Even with my naked eye, it appeared that Tarmoh’s arms and torso crossed first with Felix a split hair behind. The official photo finish judge agreed, awarding Tarmoh the position after a brief wait. Tarmoh took her victory lap and celebrated her advancement to the London Olympics to represent the flag in challenge of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and her repeat bid as the women’s 100 metres Olympic champion. USA Track & Field (USATF) presented Tarmoh with a bronze medal as the event also doubled as the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships…the American national championship for athletics (or track and field). She conducted an on-field interview with NBC Sports and a media session with the national champion (Jeter) and the runner-up (Madison). Felix congratulated Tarmoh on the feat. Some 30 minutes later, there was an announcement during the live television broadcast that the 3rd place finish in the women’s 100 metres final had been declared a dead heat. From there, things became really murky. USATF stated that the result was “inconclusive”—even with the camera angles—to declare a winner. The photo finish judge reneged on his decision in awarding Tarmoh the position, elevating Felix from 4th to T-3rd. There was also multiple accounts of Felix crying inconsolably after losing to Tarmoh. When neither woman conceded, NBC Sports advocated for an 8pm ET winner-take-all runoff for the position as the absolute final event of the Olympic Trials…a whole day after the originally scheduled final event. Tarmoh dropped out several hours before this ultra hyped-up spectacle and Felix was awarded 3rd place and the spot on the women’s 100 metres team in the Olympics.
What it meant to me then? In the moment, I thought it was pure bulls***. In fact, that’s exactly what I said: this is pure bulls***. For me, this had all of the makings of behind-the-scenes wrangling. It was no secret that Felix was the darling of the U.S. Olympic hopefuls in 2012. She was still young (26), emerging as a dominant runner, and had a smile and rapport that the media loved. It didn’t hurt that she was one of Nike’s most prized athletes and the saviour of U.S. track and field. She was attempting to equal what Francina Blankers-Koen did at the previous London Olympics: win 4 athletics gold medals in a single Olympics. She was trying to one-up Florence Griffith-Joyner’s Seoul Olympics feat in which she won 3 Olympic golds. Basically, she was attempting to be the standard-bearer for not only female American track and field athletes but for all female track and field athletes. The media attention she generated in the lead-up to the Trials was insane. It was reminiscent of Lolo Jones and the 2008 Olympics…only more intense. Everybody knew that Felix would try to make the team in the 200 metres. That was her signature event. Her popularity made her an automatic for the 4 x 100 metres and 4 x 400 metres relay teams. She made what was essentially a “business decision” to enter the 100 metres instead of the 400 metres. Considering Sanya Richards-Ross, Dee Trotter, and Natasha Hastings—all peaking at the time of the Trials—were competing in that event, I could why she made that choice. So the controversy behind the 100 metres final happens and my first thought after the announcement of the “dead heat” and the “runoff” is that all of the major players (1) didn’t like Jeter-Madison-Tarmoh as the 100 metres trio and (2) felt Felix would be the better story in taking down the upstart Jamaican women much like Carl Lewis was in taking down Ben Johnson and Linford Christie in the 80s. Those major players, by the way, were the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Track & Field, Nike, and NBC Sports. They all had a significant stake in seeing Felix’s profile on wide display in London. The runoff was just a preview in which they all would benefit: (1) the USOC gets a chance to be front and center in a winner-take-all moment usually reserved for the NHL, NBA, and MLB; (2) USATF gets a chance to have the sport featured in primetime with high stakes with the fan-friendly Felix in the aftermath of the performance-enhancing drug scandals; (3) Nike, already the official sponsor the U.S. Olympic team, gets to have its preeminent contracted athlete competing on the Heyward Field track that gets beaucoup money from Phil Knight, the founder of Nike; (4) NBC Sports, which had been getting killed in sports ratings since Super Bowl XLVI got a primetime event that generated significant industry buzz. It was pure bulls***.
What it means to me now? In the end, Felix didn’t win the women’s 100 metres at the London Olympics. She didn’t even get a medal and was largely uncompetitive against the best straight-line sprinters in the world. She basically stole Tarmoh’s spot and got housed by the cream of the women’s 100 metres crop. From where I stood, it was a mockery of the sport by the powers-that-be to try and elevate Felix in a space where she had never enjoyed success at the senior level—nary an individual medal for the 100 metres at the Olympics, the World Championships, the USATF Championships or even on the circuit. Since that decision to essentially steal Tarmoh’s positioning and Olympic spot, I’ve openly rooted against Allyson Felix in all events…even if it makes a diehard American like me seem un-American. She might very well go on to eclipse Carl Lewis—whom I consider the sorest loser in sports history—as the most decorated Olympian in athletics but in The Book of Juan, she’s a fraud…a corporate champion no better than The Rock was in late 1998 and the first half of 1999. Her part in all of this effectively killed Jeneba Tarmoh’s career. F*** her.