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A race rife with drama

The 100-meter dash is glamour event, as each second counts. But past champions' drug use casts a lasting pall.

August 14, 2008|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- According to tradition, the winner of the men's Olympic 100-meter dash is celebrated as the world's fastest human.

Given the checkered history of some of the champions over the last two decades, that title seems outdated.

The label "world's fastest to find chemical enhancement" seems a more fitting nickname since Ben Johnson's positive steroid test at the 1988 Games meant that the first question after every Olympic final isn't how fast the winner ran but whether he or she was clean.

Track and field's shortest sprint used to be the Games' most glamorous event. It's a classic drama, the most basic of human activities on the world's biggest athletic stage.

Run fast. First to the finish line wins. No judges to conspire against worthy winners and with no mysterious scoring system to decipher.

The 2008 race itself is as fascinating as ever, and the prospect of U.S. champion Tyson Gay, world-record holder Usain Bolt of Jamaica and fellow Jamaican Asafa Powell meeting in the Beijing final on Saturday is tantalizing.

The difference, first made clear with Johnson's positive test and subsequent admission he had been doping for years and reinforced with Marion Jones' surrender of her Sydney medals, is that the main drama now lies in separating the dirty from the deserving.

"For better or worse," said Olympic historian and author David Wallechinsky, "I suspect that the men's 100 and the women's 100 will survive all of the deservedly bad press they have received."

Drugs began to take center stage in Seoul. Johnson burst out of the blocks and crossed the finish line in 9.79 seconds, but the next day he tested positive for stanozolol, a banned steroid. Testing of his "B" sample confirmed the result, and he was disqualified, with Carl Lewis declared the winner.

Linford Christie of Britain, who finished third behind Johnson and Lewis at Seoul, tested positive for traces of the prohibited stimulant pseudoephedrine but was allowed to keep his medal after successfully blaming the reading on a ginseng product.

Christie won gold at Barcelona in 1992 and always maintained he was clean -- but he tested positive for metabolites of nandrolone, a banned steroid, at an indoor meet in Dortmund, Germany, in 1999 and was banned for two years.

Donovan Bailey, who won gold in the 100 at the 1996 Atlanta Games in a then-world record 9.84 seconds, escaped any sort of drug taint. But his successor, Maurice Greene, is less fortunate.

Angel Heredia, a self-described drug advisor and a witness in the federal government's case against former track coach Trevor Graham, alleged this year he had sold drugs to Greene. The former sprinter has denied using the drugs. He has never tested positive for banned substances and has not been sanctioned by any national or international track federation.

Justin Gatlin tested positive for testosterone in 2006, two years after his Athens Olympic triumph. It was considered a second drug violation because he had tested positive for a prescription drug in 2001, and the second incident triggered an eight-year ban from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

The ban was later reduced to four years, and his attempts to compete at this year's U.S. Olympic trials died in the legal system.

Female sprinters haven't escaped suspicion, either.

Jones won five medals at Sydney in 2000 but surrendered them after she admitted she took steroids in 2000 and 2001. Sydney silver medalist Ekaterina Thanou failed to show up for a drug test at the 2004 Athens Games, claiming she had been in a motorcycle accident, and was banned from competition for two years.

She and her training partner, Kostadinos Kenteris, face criminal charges of perjury and falsifying evidence in Greece following the accident, and the International Olympic Committee has ruled she may not compete in Beijing.

None of this, somehow, seems to have dampened public interest in the sprint or the sprinters.

"First of all, the nature of the event is just too compelling, beginning with the tension before the gun goes off, knowing that each hundredth of a second could make a difference," Wallechinsky said. "The race is over so quickly that even the spectator is lost in a concentrated, almost enhanced reality in which each second has its own developments. Finally, there is the lunge at the finish line and, often, the anxious wait for the photo of the finish."

Naivete and emotion are also in play.

"Fans always want to believe that this time their heroes are clean," Wallechinsky said.

"At the Sydney Olympics, I was deeply suspicious of Marion Jones because of [her husband] C.J. Hunter's drug use. But when I expressed my suspicions, my colleagues didn't want to hear about it because the herd journalism line was that she was a Golden Girl.

"Three years later, my publisher wanted to put her picture on the cover of my book. I objected and told him I thought she was a drug user. When I saw the book for the first time in a bookstore, there was Marion Jones on the cover anyway."

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