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RIO DE JANEIRO – Almost 20 minutes after she dove across a finish line to win an Olympic gold medal, Shaunae Miller barely had moved from the spot on the track where she splayed her weary body. Her hip sported an oval-shaped strawberry, her arm a cut, her leg a scratch. She was still out of breath. Her wheezes alternated between desperation for oxygen and joy. She was the Rio Games’ 400-meter champion, and she didn’t care how she won it.
“The only thing I was thinking,” Miller said, “is go for the gold.”
They give away Olympic gold medals every four years, and it takes everything conspiring perfectly – age, fitness, competition – to get one. For Miller – 22 years old, a 6-foot-1 machine, with just one equal – 2016 presented a rare opportunity for preeminence. And so she did something desperate and frowned upon and nonetheless perfectly legal under the governing rules of track: Mere feet from the end of the race, Miller launched herself and hoped her torso – defined in the rulebook as “distinguished from the head, neck, arms, legs, hands or feet” – passed over the finish line before Allyson Felix’s.
That was the crushing part of this, of course. Allyson Felix, in her fourth Olympics for the United States, is, as her teammate Ronnie Ash said, “the queen of the track.” Her roommate here, Dalilah Muhammad, said: “Nobody dislikes Allyson Felix. And that’s saying a lot from outside and inside of the sport.” Felix is beloved, and not only was the 400 her opportunity at redemption, another Olympic gold would have given her five to go along with a pair of silvers. No American woman ever – not Jackie Joyner-Kersee, not Florence Griffith Joyner, not Sanya Richards-Ross, not Evelyn Ashford – had won five golds or seven medals on the track. Felix was going to become the most decorated female in U.S. track history. She just didn’t know what color the medal would be.
Miller, of the Bahamas, knew when she heard the scream. Her mother, Maybelene, yelled in a familiar voice – “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” – and Miller didn’t even need to look up. The dive worked. Less than one-tenth of a second after her neck breached the finish line and her torso was officially on it – it was .07 seconds, to be exact – Felix’s entire body thrust past it. Everything happened so fast the human eye couldn’t register it. Only a top-down camera that captured Miller’s hair flapping wildly and the very top of her chest, Superman’d out, beating Felix’s upright stride.
This is a terrible rule, of course. Most runners think it’s a terrible rule, and most people watching think it’s a terrible rule, and they’re right, because essentially it says a foot race can be won off your feet. And yet there it is, on Page 170 of the IAAF Competition Rules, No. 164: THE FINISH. It doesn’t just permit diving. It practically encourages it.
Shaunae Miller called it instinct.
“It was just a reaction,” she said. “My mind just went blank.”
Allyson Felix called it devastating.
“In the moment,” Felix said, “it’s just – it’s painful.”
She wasn’t far from Miller on the track, on her back just the same, winded and worn down and wondering what happened to her 2016. This is probably Felix’s last Olympics, and even though she turned 30 this year, she believed it could be every bit as memorable and successful as her previous three. Then she suffered an ankle injury that lingered and didn’t even qualify for the U.S. team in her signature event, the 200-meter dash. Gone was her dream of a 200/400 double gold medal. She would have to settle for just one.
Miller made certain it wouldn’t come easy. She drew an outside lane with an advanced stagger, perfect for her style of running. “They’re just gonna have to come and catch me,” she said. Before the race, she told her coach: “We’ve got this.” Even if Felix was the top qualifier, Miller wasn’t scared, and the first 250 meters of the race proved her right.
Then Felix burst past the rest of the field and drew even with Miller. The 400 wasn’t just a race. It was a great race. Six Olympic medals vs. first Olympic final. Old generation vs. new generation. Ultimately, runner vs. diver.
Asked later if she ever dove at a finish line, Felix said, matter-of-factly, “No. I haven’t.” Phyllis Francis, an American who finished fifth in the 400, said she hadn’t, either, “but maybe I should try that, thinking about it now.” Natasha Hastings, the race’s third American, copped to making the dive part of her repertoire. It’s not like baseball, where a dive slows a player down because his body is falling toward the ground instead of through the bag. In track, a dive can be strategically optimal.
“I dove twice this year,” Hastings said. “I dove for my spot here on the U.S. team. … You just kind of do what you’ve got to do to get across the line sometimes.”
That’s the lesson learned Monday night: The line is the all that matters, not how you get to it.
“I got a gold medal out of it,” Miller said, “so I’m very thankful.”
Felix was despondent, a celebratory night ruined, a frustrating year not redeemed. She was the most decorated woman in U.S. track history, and that did nothing for her, not now, not when she and everyone else who watched the women’s 400-meter dash Monday night knew the truth.
Allyson Felix won the foot race. Shaunae Miller won the gold medal.