Athletics: After Marion

Sprinter Allyson Felix could be the athlete to help an ailing sport forget recent scandals
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The Independent Online

At 19, this God-fearing resident of Los Angeles has become a rallying point for women's sprinting in the wake of the Balco doping scandal which has deposited the previous world 100m and 200m champion, Kelli White, into suspension, as well as the woman who inherited her 100m title, Torri Edwards. The fall-out has also left Marion Jones, the former world and Olympic champion, in a haze of suspicion despite the fact that she has never tested positive for any banned substance.

If world athletics in general, and USA Track and Field in particular, could have invented a new sprinter to arrive in such circumstances, they could hardly have done better than the young woman who has been brought up with old-fashioned values instilled by her father, Paul, an ordained minister who teaches New Testament Greek at the Master's College in Santa Clarita, California, and her mother Marlean, a junior school teacher, who agreed for Allyson to turn professional as long as she continued with her education.

Along with 19-year-old team-mate Lauryn Williams, who won the world 100m title, and the 23-year-old winner of the men's 100m and 200m double, Justin Gatlin, with whom she shares an agent in Renaldo Nehemiah, the former 110m hurdles world record holder, Felix represents the acceptable face of US sprinting. "I'm not sure how fair a responsibility that is for Justin and Allyson," Nehemiah said. "But they are so young, so green, it's something they both embrace. They feel that if they are to be examples, they will be so proudly.

"The typical brash American is not the type of person I want to be around. Most of my clients feel the same and are happy to let their athletics do the talking."

The latest instalment of that chat will take place at the Weltklasse Golden League meeting in Zurich tomorrow night, when Felix faces Williams in the shorter sprint.

Observers within the sport first perked up and took notice of her when, 10 weeks after starting sprinting at the age of 14, the girl once known as "Chicken Legs" finished seventh in the California championships.

Interest surged again in 2003 when she beat the world junior record for 200m in Mexico City, running 22.11sec. Although the mark could not be ratified because the meeting had not arranged for routine dope testing, it remained the fastest time set that year. And it had been run by a girl who was still at school.

A year later she had her world junior record officially after running 22.18sec to earn the Olympic silver medal behind Veronica Campbell, of Jamaica. "From the beginning of the year I wouldn't have expected an Olympic medal, but once I got to Athens I was going for it," the 18-year-old announced shortly after her return to the States. "Initially I was disappointed, but my family helped put things back into perspective for me after I came home."

In the wake of her Olympic performance, she began to assume something of a celebrity status. She and Gatlin were invited to the US Open tennis tournament by Serena Williams. They trod the red carpet in front of a worldwide TV audience as guests of honour at the Emmys ceremony. Felix set up her own website - on which she promptly posted pictures of the said evening, as well as recording her hilarity at the expression on Gatlin's face as he decided whether he should stand up when his name had been announced.

Felix denies that she and the young man who won the Olympic 100m title last year are an item. "We just hang out a lot together," she says. And sometimes they drive out together around LA in her white 2004 Cadillac Escalade...

Several of Felix's fellow clients have left university to pursue professional careers, including Gatlin, but she is the only one to have been signed up even before she got there. Her status means she cannot run for the University of Southern California, but she attends as a student, sharing an apartment with her elder brother Wes, a senior sprinter at the University and a member of the US sprint relay team that won at the World Junior Championships of 2002 in a world record time.

"People used to call Allyson 'Wes's sister'," her brother said. "Now, people call me 'Allyson's brother'. It's such a cool experience to have people come up to you and say: 'I saw your sister on TV.' I think the best part of it is her humble attitude. To her, it's no big deal."

Felix served notice that she was ready to shift herself to the top of the global podium last month, when she won the London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace and ended Campbell's five-year unbeaten run over the long sprint. Her performance in Finland fulfilled that promise entirely, and had the US press in a tizzy they had not found themselves in since Jones was in her pomp.

"Everyone is getting excited about her," Nehemiah said. "It's probably because she's so young, and so poised for her age. The other exciting thing is that we have yet to see the best of her. It's scary to think that she will only be 22 at the Beijing Olympics, an age when many athletes are just starting their careers. And so everything she does before then is just gravy."

If she continues to perform at the level she has set, Nehemiah's client, who began training last November with Bobby Kersee, husband of former Olympic heptathlon champion, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, could be awash with gravy by the time she gets to China. That said, the commercial challenges are particularly sensitive in Felix's case, as she returns to university next month to resume studies that she hopes will lead to her becoming a teacher, just like her mum.

Nevertheless, Nehemiah, whose extravagant athletic talent in the 1980s earned him the nickname of "Skeets" and saw him forge a successful career in American football with the San Francisco 49ers, is not averse to looking hopefully into the future.

"I know over the next two years Allyson will become a formidable opponent over 100m as well," he said. "She is a young girl, physically, and she hasn't done a lot of weight training yet. She is knocking on the door of running 200m in sub 22-seconds. I think she will do that very consistently. She will be a force to be reckoned with.

"The difference I see between Allyson and a lot of other female sprinters out there is that she is clearly having fun. When she won her world title last week it was the first time I have ever seen her clench her fists after a race. But it was done in such a subtle, ladylike way... She's still very unaware of what she's doing. I think sometimes she doesn't realise the significance of it."

A season in the wilderness: What happened to Marion Jones

The emergence of Allyson Felix and Lauryn Williams has coincided with the fall of Marion Jones, whose image has suffered increasing damage in connection with doping issues.

Although Jones has never failed a test, her partner Tim Montgomery, the former world 100m champion, is facing a life ban after admitting that he had taken illegal substances to the federal grand jury looking into the scandal involving the Balco laboratory in San Francisco. Last year her former husband, banned shot putter C J Hunter, alleged that he had regularly injected her with drugs.

Jones looks unlikely to have to face further doping accusations in court, given the recent decision by the final defendant in the Balco case, Dwain Chambers' former coach Remy Korchemny, to agree a deal with prosecutors.

This year Jones ran a 400m race in the United States early in the season, when she ran slower than she had done as a student but maintained afterwards that all was going according to plan. Most European promoters opted to shun her until the Balco investigation was resolved, but she received two invitations to meetings at Hengelo and Milan, where she ran more than half a second below her best.

She turned up to the US world championship trials last month, but scratched shortly before the 100m heats, citing injury, and has not competed since.