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Helene Elliott

Track stars ask for clean break

May 16, 2008|Helene Elliott

Stellar field?

Check. The entry list for Sunday's Adidas track classic in Carson starts with 400-meter specialist Jeremy Wariner, twice an Olympic gold medalist and twice a world champion. It includes Jenn Stuczynski, the American women's pole vault record holder, and boasts seven of the world's top 10 female 100-meter runners.

Something at stake?

Check. It's a chance for runners, jumpers and throwers to work on starts, finishes, drives and technique and advance along the path they hope will lead to the Beijing Games.

Weather?

Clear and sunny, with a predicted high of 90 degrees.

And the Lakers won't be playing.

The attendance Sunday at the Home Depot Center will be something of a referendum on track and field as a spectator sport here -- and maybe nationally, too.

Outside of singular events such as the Penn and Drake Relays, track has been dying at the box office the last 20 years, losing sponsorships, TV coverage and credibility as its stars became ensnared in doping scandals.

When NBC asked the International Olympic Committee to change the Beijing schedule to permit live broadcasts of a marquee event during prime time in North America, the sport it requested be switched was swimming.

Swimming, gymnastics and beach volleyball will be seen at the most favorable times. Track and field is likely to be shown on a delayed basis.

Track's tribulations are its trials -- not the contests that will determine who competes in Beijing but the proceedings that have taken place in courtrooms.

While Marion Jones sits in a Texas prison serving a six-month sentence for lying to federal investigators about her drug use, the perjury trial of her former coach, Trevor Graham, is scheduled to begin Monday in federal court in San Francisco.

"I hope it's done with after this trial, that it's all shut down and they show there are clean athletes out there," Wariner said Thursday at a news conference in Carson.

The trial may produce more doping allegations. Angel Heredia, a former trainer who is expected to be the main witness against Graham, has claimed he sold banned performance-enhancing drugs to Sydney 100-meter gold medalist Maurice Greene.

Greene never failed a drug test, but Jones didn't, either.

The cheaters have always been ahead of the testers, and that's the wrong race for this sport to lose.

Members of this young and already remarkably accomplished generation are putting their reputations on the line to show they won't follow their predecessors down the road to ruin.

Tyson Gay, who won the 100 here last year in a wind-aided 9.79 seconds, said Thursday he is part of a voluntary project run by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in which he provided baseline blood and urine samples and undergoes frequent testing to prove he is not doping.

"It's unfortunate that we have to face the problem and I hope that everything changes around," said Gay, who plans to run the 100-200 double Sunday.

The initiative, which also counts two-time 200-meter world champion Allyson Felix of Los Angeles among its participants, is called "Project Believe."

But there may not be many people who believe the sport has cleaned itself up enough to justify investing their emotions and their money on Sunday.

For the first three years of its existence, this meet -- initially called the Home Depot Invitational -- drew announced crowds of about 11,000. The past few years the numbers shrunk to the 6,000 range.

Meet organizers said they did not have advance sales figures for Sunday. They're hoping for a big walk-up.

They may be indulging in wishful thinking.

The crime is that this meet promises drama in nearly every event and a close-up look at probably dozens of athletes who will win medals in Beijing.

The competition between Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica and Felix in the 100 should be fierce. The men's 400, with Wariner and Athens 1,600-meter relay teammate Darold Williamson, is intriguing. The men's 1,500 field, led by Bernard Lagat, is remarkably deep. Stuczynski, who didn't begin pole vaulting until her senior year of college, is still exploring her immense potential.

That should be appreciated, not turned into a footnote by another cheater's trial.

Asked what he would say to fans who abandoned the sport because of the doping scandals, Wariner spoke from the heart.

"Believe in us again. We are clean. There's a lot of clean athletes out there," he said.

"A lot of us love what we do. This is our career. We do it the best we can, the right way. We're all trying to make our family proud, our country proud of us, representing the right way . . .

"Just believe in us again."

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott

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