Nehemiah's flare-up caught all parties off guard. "It blindsided me," says Richards. "I feel it was unwarranted. I had a legitimately great 2006. It's not like somebody handed me something."
Felix, who struggled with injuries and illness of her own in 2006, said, "Renaldo got excited. I was as surprised as anybody."
In the intervening months, Nehemiah has backed off only slightly. "My words were not directed at Sanya Richards," he says. "I felt like my client was getting overlooked, and she had all the medals."
Likewise, some people in the Richards camp feel that on occasion Felix gets cut slack by the U.S. media that Sanya does not. "Allyson can run terrible races without anybody commenting on it," says Richards's father, Archie. There is little to separate the two sprinters. Both took swift routes to professional track; Felix straight from high school and Richards after two years at Texas. Both are bright, telegenic and polished. One difference: Felix was born in the U.S., while Richards emigrated from her native Jamaica at age 12 and became a U.S. citizen in 2002.
They share the marketing pie. Richards runs for Nike, Felix for Adidas. Richards, according to her marketing agent, Lowell Taub, has endorsement deals with Coca-Cola, Nutrilite, AT&T, Q-Ray bracelets and Hershey's. Felix has contracts with Visa, PowerBar and Master Spas, but according to her business manager, Todd Provost, the larger plan for her is to wait for big opportunities that might develop after the Games. "We plan on striking while the iron is hot, immediately after the Olympics," says Provost. It is notable that NBC, in commercials promoting its coverage of the Games, has made Felix its featured women's track athlete.
Both Felix and Richards face athletic challenges. Felix, whose 200-meter grace evokes that of Wilma Rudolph, has struggled for consistency in the 100. On May 9 she ran a personal best of 10.93 in Doha, Qatar, the best time by a U.S. woman in the event this season. But she has not broken 11.06 since then, while struggling with poor starts.
"The reason Allyson runs so well in the 200 and the 400 is she's got that Seabiscuit personality, where if you put her alongside somebody, she takes over the track," says Felix's coach, veteran Bobby Kersee. "But in order for that to happen, you've got to get into the race at the beginning, and in the 100 meters her start has not let her do that. But it's coming."
Felix's training also was stunted by a trying stretch in mid-May. The father of her longtime boyfriend, Olympic hurdles hopeful Kenneth Ferguson, died of lung cancer while Felix was in Qatar. "She stayed up all night with me on the webcam, crying together," says Ferguson. Four days before the May 18 Adidas Track Classic in Carson, Calif., Felix flew to Detroit for the funeral, and then two days before the meet, sat for three hours in the sun at her graduation from USC. (She earned a degree in elementary education).
FOUR YEARS AGO in Athens she was a teenager on a joyride. "Now it's all about the competition," said Felix after a recent workout at UCLA. "This time I feel more professional about it." Felix commutes 20 miles each way to UCLA from her home in Santa Clarita and draws strength from a close and deeply spiritual family that includes her parents, Paul and Marlean, and older brother, Wes.
"My goal has never been to be the big name out there," says Felix. "If it comes to me, that's fine, because I want to be a role model. But my goals are on the track. Four medals is a personal thing."