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On the Beaten Track

As competition begins, doping scandals still make for a cloudy forecast

August 20, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Usually the main attraction of the Summer Olympics, track and field at the Athens Games is merely following in the wake of swimmer Michael Phelps, so battered is the sport's image by a doping scandal that has left no athlete above suspicion.

"Everybody's looking at track and field with a cloud over their head," said George Williams, coach of the U.S. men's team. "My concern is that we go through the Olympics without it raining."

The U.S. team has already endured a storm and will be hard-pressed to end a medal decline that began after it had won 30 at Barcelona in 1992. U.S. athletes won 23 medals at Atlanta in 1996 and 20 at Sydney in 2000, and USA Track and Field officials have said 17 to 20 is their goal here.

That's after Torri Edwards, who was to have run in the 100- and 200-meter sprints, lost her spots because of a drug ban unrelated to the larger BALCO steroid case.

"Anything more than 20 would be fantastic," USATF spokeswoman Jill Geer said.

One U.S. medal is already in the books -- Adam Nelson's silver in the shotput, held Wednesday at Olympia. The schedule accelerates today at Olympic Stadium, highlighted by the first two rounds of the women's 100, first round of the men's 400, men's 1,500, women's 800 and women's 5,000, and qualifying in the men's triple jump and high jump.

Marion Jones, under investigation by U.S. anti-doping officials but not charged with a doping offense, is entered in the long jump and is a candidate for the 400-meter relay. Sue Humphrey, coach of the U.S. women's team, said Thursday that Jones was in a pool with Muna Lee, Olympic trials 200-meter champion Allyson Felix, Angela Williams, Lauryn Williams and trials 100-meter champion LaTasha Colander.

Humphrey said she hadn't chosen the lineup for the finale because she wanted to assess runners' conditions after their other events. Angela Williams, Jones, Lauryn Williams and Colander teamed for a world-leading 41.67 seconds at a meet in Germany on Aug. 8.

However, putting Jones on the relay could be risky. If she's later found guilty of a doping offense, everyone on the relay might lose any medal the team wins. The International Assn. of Athletics Federations has recommended that members of the triumphant U.S. men's 1,600 relay team at Sydney be stripped of their medals because Jerome Young tested positive for a banned steroid in 1999 and shouldn't have been allowed to run in a preliminary round.

"She's prepared for various possibilities," Humphrey said of Jones, who she said worked on the long jump and 100 at the U.S. team's preparation camp on the island of Crete. "Allegations are made all the time.... They are that, rumors and allegations, at this time."

Many U.S. medal contenders say they're conscious of track's damaged reputation and hope to rebuild it.

"It's our responsibility to uphold our sport to the utmost and highest level," said Shawn Crawford, who will double in the 100 and 200. "It's critical that we go out and show this is a clean sport and that we are able to conduct ourselves with dignity and honor."

Stacy Dragila, the Sydney pole vault gold medalist who has lost her world record to Russia's Yelena Isinbayeva, applauded the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's efforts.

"It was exciting for me [at the Olympic trials] to cheer on athletes that are on the team that I knew were doing it the right way," she said. "I'm a clean athlete. I think we've done a really good job skimming the surface. I can room with someone, knowing they're clean....

"I don't know why we've been targeted. There's drugs everywhere, let's be honest. Hopefully, this will have a positive effect everywhere when [drug testing in other sports] branches out."

Besides being hurt by the taint of the BALCO steroid mess, track and field in Athens lacks a focal point, as Jones was in Sydney when she vied for five medals and won three gold and two bronze. And unlike Sydney, where Australia's Cathy Freeman enthralled her compatriots while she chased the 400-meter gold medal, Athens has no hometown medal contenders since sprinters Costas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou withdrew.

Kenteris, the Sydney 200-meter champion, and Thanou, the women's 100 runner-up, failed to show up for drug tests last week at the Athens Olympic village. Kenteris said he hadn't known about the test and withdrew "in the national interest." He was expected to contend for the 200 gold again, and his absence will be felt.

"It has a great impact on his country, because this is the birthplace of the Olympics and he is the defending champion in the 200," Crawford said. "I can't rejoice in his downfall. I can't say I'm happy he's not competing. I wanted the field to be as complete as possible."

The 100 field "is the most competitive field in history," said Justin Gatlin, second in the 100 and 200 at the U.S. trials. "We have guys in the finals who should all be sub-10-[second] runners constantly. I think this race is going to be unpredictable."

Crawford predicted he'd be the man to beat in the 100. "If I don't beat myself, they are not going to beat me," he said.

But Jamaican sensation Asafa Powell has defeated Maurice Greene, defending Olympic champion and former world-record holder, twice in the last few weeks. He outraced Greene at London, 9.91 seconds to 9.97, and at Zurich, Switzerland, winning in 9.93 to Greene's 10.14.

"Beating Maurice Greene has built my confidence a lot," said Powell, 21. "That's real good for me."

Powell smiled when asked whether he agreed with assessments that he's the favorite.

"Everyone has been saying that," he said. "I'm not going to object to that. I don't mind going in as the favorite."

In today's only final, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia will compete for his third successive 10,000-meter title, despite being bothered by an Achilles' tendon injury. His countryman, Kenenisa Bekele, is considered the favorite after setting a world record of 26 minutes 20.31 seconds in June.

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