Allyson Felix, Justin Gatlin
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Allyson Felix, Justin Gatlin ushered in new era of U.S. sprints

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It’s about 3 a.m. on Aug. 22, 2004, and little Lauryn Williams staggers back into athlete housing at the Athens Olympics.

Williams, a 20-year-old who would speak at her University of Miami business school graduation four months later, had that night placed second in the marquee women’s event of the Olympics — the 100m final — in her first individual event at a global championship. And then gone through hours of interviews, drug testing and all-around congratulations.

When she finally finished all that, she found Justin Gatlin. Gatlin, also an Olympic rookie, also competed at the Athens Olympic Stadium that night, winning his 100m quarterfinal heat. Gatlin would take gold in the event and be crowned the world’s fastest man about 18 hours after his encounter with the dog-tired Williams.

Williams laid out on the floor of their compound. Gatlin spoke.

“How are you feeling?” Gatlin asked.

“Well, I lost,” Williams said.

(This was a reversal of her immediate reaction on the track, when she could be heard yelling, “I’ll take the silver medal,” seconds after her name flashed on the scoreboard below that of Belarus’ Yulia Nesterenko, who beat Williams 10.93 to 10.96 seconds, the margin about the same as their difference in reaction time. Nesterenko had never broken 11 seconds before the Games, then did so in all four rounds in Athens, and never came close to doing so again.)

Gatlin responded.

“You’re No. 2 in the whole world,” he said. “You’re like one of the best athletes ever. What are you talking about?”

Williams was still lying on the floor.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right,'” Williams recalled last week. “I definitely remember it very specifically, like it being very late and a lot of people still being up when I got back, and him really lifting me up in that moment.”

Maurice Greene was 30 years old in Athens, in what would be his Olympic farewell. He took 100m bronze behind Gatlin and Portugal’s Francis Obikwelu in a failed bid to join Carl Lewis as the only men to repeat as Olympic champion in the event.

In Athens, Greene couldn’t help but notice the unflappable presence of the youngest U.S. Olympic track and field competitor in 28 years — an 18-year-old named Allyson Felix.

“Nothing really fazed her,” Greene said, leaning back on a Manhattan hotel couch last week. “You just knew it was something special there.”

Felix, who had already turned professional, best expressed her poise to American viewers with calm, seemingly calculated responses in post-race interviews with NBC’s Bob Neumeier. Felix earned silver in the 200m on Aug. 25, matching Williams’ result from four days earlier.

“We were kind of like deers in headlights at the time, but we knew that something was changing,” Williams said last week. “There was a whole new brigade of us.”

Williams was speaking about not just herself, Felix and Gatlin, but of a larger group that debuted at the Athens Olympics and largely carried U.S. sprints through the next two Olympics.

Shawn Crawford, the 2004 Olympic 200m champion. Sanya Richards-Ross, the 2012 Olympic 400m champion. DeeDee Trotter, the 2012 Olympic 400m bronze medalist. Jeremy Wariner, the 2004 Olympic 400m champion.

Williams retired after London 2012, but everybody else is still competing. A large group of them could complete their Olympic careers in Rio, should they qualify.

Even Crawford, who had retired after missing the 2012 Olympic team but failed to take his name out of the drug-testing pool and was banned two years in 2013 for failure to update drug testers on his whereabouts. Crawford is planning to return once his ban is up in April, his agent said earlier this year, and Crawford is again being drug tested.

Gatlin and Felix are the headliners, the faces of U.S. men’s and women’s sprinting. Felix said last week that she and Gatlin hung out together in a lounge area at the Paris 2003 World Championships, when Felix made her global championship debut and Gatlin was there but not competing.

“We had both come on the professional scene right around the same time, and I think we were really just drawn into each other because we really didn’t know anybody else and everybody else was much older than us,” Felix said.

Their careers separated after Athens. Felix continued to be a global star, winning three World 200m titles and eventually her first Olympic 200m title in 2012. She won her first World 400m title this year and could go for a Michael Johnson-like 200m-400m double in Rio.

Gatlin tested positive for excessive testosterone in 2006, served a four-year ban and returned to the sport in 2010. He gradually improved and the last two years has been running the fastest times of his career, drawing scrutiny at the advanced age of 33.

Gatlin said he and Felix were “like sidekicks” in 2003. They conversed together and with others at a USA Track and Field Hall of Fame ceremony in New York last week.

“Her journey that she went through, basically setting the trend for a lot of these high school kids to come out and turn pro, she really captured lightning in a bottle for a dream,” Gatlin said.

When Gatlin trained to come back to the sport in 2010, Greene was one of the previous generation of sprinters with whom he spoke.

“Why do you want to come back,” Greene asked him, “because people are going to talk a lot about you.”

Gatlin asserted that he would rise above the stain of his doping ban.

“He came back to prove it,” Greene said.

To those who question why he’s running so fast at a time when most sprinters are past their primes, Gatlin always says he feels younger because of the four years he was forced to take off from the sport.

“Maybe the time off did him a lot of good,” Greene said.

Eventually, Gatlin and Felix will step aside, either by choice or by being pushed out by another new group of U.S. sprinters.

“There’s a lot of kids,” Felix said. “There’s so much going on I don’t think we can name one person. We’re going to see that emerge. You have Kaylin Whitney [a 17-year-old who has broken 22.50 in the 200m each of the last two years], Candace Hill [a 16-year-old who ran 10.98 over 100m this year] and a lot of really young girls. They need time to develop before we crown them.”

Gatlin noted training partner Isiah Young, 25, who finished second to Gatlin in the 200m at last summer’s U.S. Championships, and Trayvon Bromell, 20, who shared the World Championships 100m bronze behind Bolt and Gatlin.

“[Bromell] is like a younger version of me when it comes to having a hunger for it,” Gatlin said, “but not realizing the magnitude of what you’re doing.”

MORE TRACK AND FIELD: Justin Gatlin still regrets Worlds loss as 2016 nears

FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

Gabriel Jesus
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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

MORE: Noah Lyles details training near woods, dog walkers

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Jenny Thompson’s new team is on the front line fighting coronavirus

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Two weeks ago, Jenny Thompson, the 12-time Olympic swimming medalist turned anesthesiologist, told close friends about the worrisome situation at her hospital in Charleston, S.C.

Thompson and her perioperative team of 40 or 50 were stressed that they would not have the most effective personal protective equipment (PPE) for when the coronavirus pandemic peaks there, projected to be later this month.

The messages caused fellow former Stanford swimmers and Olympic teammates Gabrielle Rose and Lea Maurer to act.

“She almost never asks for any sort of help or support,” Maurer said. “She’s Herculean in her ability to take on life and all its challenges.”

Rose and Maurer started a GoFundMe titled “Go Jenny Go” on March 22 for help to purchase PPE for the hospital. At the time, critical care doctors were “scrambling to piece together purchases on their own in anticipation of their high risk patients,” Maurer wrote.

Thompson said the PPE situation is better now. The GoFundMe was suspended Wednesday. Future support is directed to help those in New York City. Thompson specifically noted a GoFundMe for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

More than $9,000 was raised in less than two weeks. Also, the hospital started receiving more PPE on its own. Thompson’s team now feels prepared for what’s to come.

“People were responding and donating from all chapters of my life,” Thompson said by phone Thursday. “People I didn’t even know. Family from USA Swimming and international swimming. It’s really touched me to know that so many people care and are able to donate, help share the message.”

Thompson woke at 4 a.m. several days this week with thoughts of her peers in New York City. Healthcare workers there have cited a lack of PPE in putting their own lives at risk while they fight to save others. Some have contracted the virus.

“We’ve been fortunate [in South Carolina]. I feel lucky,” Thompson said. “We’ll definitely be in a place where we’re taking care of a lot of Covid patients, but we’re not there yet.

“I’ve heard people say, people in healthcare knew what they were signing up for. I never signed up to get sick and potentially die from this job. I always assumed that I would have the protection or the supplies needed to help me do my job, and that’s been a real struggle nationwide.”

Thompson went to medical school in New York at Columbia University starting in 2001.

“I’d been there maybe a couple weeks at Columbia, when 9/11 happened,” she said. “I remember feeling very helpless as a first-year medical student. I wanted to help so badly, but there really wasn’t much I could do. All my classmates felt the same way. I’ve always had that as part of the making of me as a doctor, having to go through crisis, but I never imagined a pandemic. I guess some people prepare for this sort of thing their whole life, but I didn’t.”

The term “front lines” has been applied to healthcare workers around the globe. Thompson said it’s apt at her hospital.

“We definitely have Covid here, but we have not had a major outbreak like some other cities,” she said. “We consider every patient who we give general anesthesia and intubate to be a potential risk. As anesthesia providers and people who intubate the airway, we are on the front line. We are at a much higher risk of getting sick without the right PPE.”

Thompson’s team feels more ready for the peak with every passing day. They’re simulating, donning and doffing and scheduling to work longer shifts starting next week. The preparation extends home, where she has a husband and three children.

“I have, like, four different pairs of shoes,” Thompson said. “I spray my socks with fabric disinfectant. I take them off in the car, and then I put on flip-flops. Then when I get home, I shower and put my clothes in the wash immediately. It’s a strange place to be, but just consider everything I touch to be contaminated in an effort to protect myself.”

Both Rose and Maurer still see in Thompson that swimmer who awed them in college. As Thompson trained to become the most decorated female U.S. Olympian in history, she studied at Stanford and then Columbia to become a doctor.

“I knew I wanted to take care of critically ill patients,” she said.

As a swimmer, Thompson was known as the ultimate teammate. Eight Olympic gold medals in relays, often an anchor. Always there. Dependable.

“She knows that she’s going to make a difference,” Maurer said. “She knows that she’s going to achieve that goal. She knows that she’s going to help to make people better. And so she does it.”

Thompson believes the next few weeks will be unlike anything she’s ever faced.

“Everybody was sort of freaking out in the beginning and feeling very stressed, and I think that at some level has not gone away,” she said. “That’s going to stay with us, but we have a we-can-do-this-together fighting mentality that we are leaning on each other for. It’s really no different than being a part of any kind of team.”