The runner has overtaken Carl Lewis as the most decorated US track Olympian, but her influence transcends athletics
By Andy Bull at the Olympic Stadium | The Guardian | August 7, 2021
Allyson Felix and the victorious US women’s 4x400m relay team. Photograph: Patrick Smith/Getty Images
In the minutes after the end of the very last event, an army of construction workers filed into the Olympic Stadium to start getting it ready for the closing ceremony. The athletes were still making their way out through the line of TV, radio and press interviews while the workers were marching past them, hauling palettes of stacked plastic matting to lay over the track and great rolls of fabric to unwrap. The Olympics are winding down, and the athletics is wrapping up. Looking back on what’s happened here in the last nine days, you can see the ways in which the Games have started to change.
The most keenly anticipated race of these Olympics wasn’t the men’s 100m but the women’s, and the biggest stars of the athletics championships were Elaine Thompson-Herah, who swept all three sprints, and Sifan Hassan, who completed an unprecedented treble when she followed her victory in the 5,000m and her bronze in the 1,500m with another gold medal in the 10,000m. And then there was Allyson Felix, who says she has enjoyed every minute of it.
“The women showed up,” Felix said. “I think we’ve been showing up on the track, off the track, in all of the ways. So to me I loved it, I love seeing it. It’s been a really special Games for women, in our sport, outside our sport, it’s been really inspiring for me to see performance after performance, women out there getting it done. Obviously I think there’s still a lot of work to do in a lot of areas but we have momentum, we’re moving in the right direction, not just from a performance standpoint but by changing industry norms. And we’re going to continue to push that.”
Felix, 35, was out there getting it done herself, just like always. She won the 11th and last medal of her 17-year Olympic career when the US won the 4x400m relay. It means she has overtaken Carl Lewis and become the most decorated athlete in the history of US track and field.
The roll call, then. It started with the silver she won in the 200m at Athens in 2004 when she was 18, then in Beijing she won silver in the 200m again and her first gold in the 4x400m. At London 2012, she won the 200m and both relays, too. At Rio 2016 she finished second to Shaunae Miller‑Uibo in the 400m, one of the great races in Olympic history, and did the relay double again. And at Tokyo 2020, she won her first bronze in the 400m, and this one last gold. Only Paavo Nurmi, the flying Finn who dominated middle-distance running in the 1920s, ever won more. Allyson Felix on her 4x400m relay leg. Photograph: Aleksandra Szmigiel/ReutersThat last 4x400m relay wasn’t a race, more a royal procession. The US team was stacked, with the two fastest 400m hurdlers in history, Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad, on the first and third leg, Felix on the second, and the 800m champion, Athing Mu, on the fourth. There was four seconds worth of fresh air between them and the Poles in second place. Mu, who was only two when Felix won her first Olympic medal, turned in one of the quickest splits in history, 48.32sec. She has the world at her feet.
So does Felix. It feels like her athletics career was only the prelude to what she will do next. Lewis never really seemed to know what to do with himself once he finished in athletics. Back in the wild frontier days of the internet there used to be an excruciating show reel of his movie auditions knocking around online, although it’s since disappeared. It was, if you can believe it, even worse than his short‑lived career as a pop singer. Felix isn’t going to have that problem. She is a woman with a purpose. “That’s the biggest thing for me,” she said, “beyond running on the track, impacting lives.”
In 2018, Felix gave birth to her daughter, Camryn. It was a traumatic delivery. Felix was diagnosed with severe pre‑eclampsia during her routine 32-week scan. It could have killed her and her child, and she was rushed into hospital for an emergency C-section. She has become a dedicated campaigner on this and other issues. She testified about it at a congressional committee hearing on racial disparities in maternal health. After winning her bronze in the women’s 400m, she posted an Instagram photo of herself wearing all her medals. The scar from her C-section scar framed the bottom of the shot. Sifan Hassan completes unique treble with sprint finish to win 10,000m gold Read moreThere was more. At the time of her birth, Felix was in the middle of contract negotiations with her sponsor, Nike. It told her it was offering a 70% cut, and then refused to give her a contractual guarantee that it wouldn’t punish her financially if her performances dipped in the months either side of the birth. Advertisement Felix dropped out of negotiations. She went public with it and shamed Nike, one of the biggest and most influential corporations in sport, into improving its maternity terms for all female athletes. Except her.
Felix had moved on. She found herself a new sponsor, Athleta, who were willing to help her set up a $200,000 fund to pay for childcare costs for athletes who are travelling to competitions. And since Athleta did not have their own line of running spikes, Felix set up a new company, Saysh, and started designing them herself. She was wearing them here this week.
When Felix started her career, women still were not allowed to compete in all the men’s events. Now she’s finishing it and women have dominated this athletics championship. Oh, and the US men? They won their 4x400m relay too, in 2min 55.70sec.