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ON THE toughest of training days, when repeat sprints painfully take their toll under the central Texas sun, Sanya Richards reaches for motivation and finds a name. Allyson Felix. "I think about her all the time when I'm working out, because she has such great talent," says Richards. "And such fast times." Richards drives her arms and pushes harder, chasing a distant ghost. Half a continent away, Felix works at UCLA on a weathered orange track framed by eucalyptus trees. She, too, knows where to find her best race. Sanya Richards.
"I love running against her," says Felix. She extends her long, liquid stride until her heels clip the back of her tights.
They are not good friends (nor enemies, either), yet each understands the other better than any outsider could, sharing outsized talents and rare ambition. They will compete against each other at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, which open this Friday in Eugene, Ore., yet they will not run against each other. Both in Eugene and at the Beijing Games in August they will be fighting separately for the tiny and exclusive slice of fleeting fame awarded to the queen of Olympic track. They will be compared without facing off.
Each had hoped to run both the 200 and the 400 meters at the trials and the Games. Felix, 22, won a silver medal in the 200 at the 2004 Olympics when she was just 18. She has since twice won the world title at that distance and last summer at the worlds in Osaka, Japan, won three gold medals, taking the 200 and running on the 4×100 and 4×400 relays, flaming a split of 48 seconds flat on the latter, one of the fastest relay legs in history.
Richards, 23, set a U.S. record of 48.70 seconds for the open 400 in 2006 and in that same year was ranked second in the world in the 200. Last summer, despite a debilitating illness called Behcet's syndrome, she made the world championships in the 200, ran with Felix on the 4×400 relay and dominated the 400 on the late-summer leg of the international circuit, after splitting a pair of 400 races with Felix.
They would have been favored to win four medals between them in the two individual events. But the Beijing Olympic program overlaps the 200 and 400, making a double too risky. Early in 2007 Richards petitioned the International Association of Athletics Federations, track's governing body, for a change in the schedule that would enable the 200-400 double. Michael Johnson completed that double at the 1996 Olympics, as did Marie-José Pérec of France. After her performance in Osaka, Felix added a petition of her own.
Both were turned down. "Another example of track and field shooting itself in the foot," says Clyde Hart, who coaches Richards and coached Johnson in 1996. "There's absolutely no reason not to make that double possible unless you're trying to make it possible for more people to win medals."
However, Pauline Davis-Thompson, who ran on the Bahamas' gold-medal-winning 4×100 relay and is now a member of the IAAF Council, says, "We would love to have made that change, but the petition was not made in a timely manner. The schedule was [already] set. I wish it could have been done. The sport is suffering now because of morally bankrupt individuals [a reference to steroid scandals], and these two young women can lift the sport."
THEY NOW must lift it in different ways. Felix will run the 100 and the 200 at the trials and attempt to win four medals (including in both relays) in Beijing. Richards will run only the 400, and in addition to a likely selection in the 4×400, try to secure a spot on the very competitive 4×100 relay. Even though they will not compete head-to-head in Eugene, they will extend a palpable rivalry that led to an unexpected outburst last summer in Osaka.
Felix had just routed the field in the 200 final, running a personal best of 21.81 seconds. Alluding to the buzz generated by Richards's petition to change the Olympic schedule, Felix's track agent, former hurdles star Renaldo Nehemiah (also Richards's agent in 2005), vented to U.S. media in the belly of the stadium. "When people are talking about everyone else," he said, "and you're still the best combination sprinter in the world, bar none, it's insulting."