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On a fast track to a life of doubt

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Unfortunately for Tyson Gay, America has lost track of track. In the new millennium, the sporting public is much more concerned with the hands Chris Moneymaker is dealt than with the fleet feet Gay was born with.

Once upon a time, Gay's feats at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships — a 9.84 in the 100 meters and a 19.62 in the 200 — would have been the lead story in sports sections across the country. But that was before the Ben Johnson revelations and the Marion Jones suspicions and the tales of former Eastern German athletes giving birth to deformed babies.

Some would say it's symbolic that Gay was running into the wind in both races because track has been running into the wind for some time now. In fact, some would argue the sport has been on life support since Sept. 27, 1988, the day Johnson was stripped of his 100-meter gold medal at the Seoul Olympics after flunking a drug test.

It's one thing for a weight lifter or cross-country skier to get caught using steroids; it's quite another when it happens to the World's Fastest Human. Track has never really recovered from 1988. Every year, it seems, it loses a little more of its credibility, a little more of its relevance — and Gay is a prime example of that.

After all, no 100/200 man in history has posted times like his. Not even the sainted Carl Lewis, who topped out at 9.86 and 19.75 (when he wasn't long jumping 29 feet, that is). That's what we're talking about here, a sprinter who's encroaching on Carl Lewis/Jesse Owens territory.

Except ...

With track these days, there's always an "except." We may want to believe Gay's times are genuine, ungoosed by performance enhancers, but experience tells us to beware. I mean, wasn't it just yesterday that Justin Gatlin was running a record-tying 9.77 in the 100? And wasn't it just the day after yesterday that he was failing a drug screening?

Right now, Gay's only guilt is by association — association with track people. He has absolutely no points, so to speak, on his license. But when a guy blows away the field the way he did Friday and Sunday — in events often decided by nanoseconds — it's only natural to wonder what Magic Undetectable Elixir his chemists have stumbled upon.

Again, this has nothing to do with Gay and everything to do with his sport ... and the times we live in. In '88, after Johnson clocked an unheard-of 9.79 in Seoul, the Toronto Star was quick to proclaim him "a national treasure." Nowadays, we're apt to respond to such performances with a collective "Hmmmm" — while waiting for the results of the "B" sample.

A shame, for sure, but this is how we've been conditioned. Track has become one of those Sports That Can't Be Trusted like professional wrestling or ice skating. Gay might have just had the greatest weekend in sprinting history ... or he might not have. Check back in a year or two. Maybe there's a Greg Anderson in his entourage who won't be willing to go to jail for him. Or maybe — we can hope, can't we? — he'll be viewed as the next Michael Johnson.

How did we ever get from There to Here? How did track go from being A Race To The Finish Line to A Never-Ending Search For A Shortcut, legal or otherwise? Granted, BALCO has been boarded up, but how many other labs are out there, bubbling away in somebody"s basement? All it takes is a beaker, a Bunsen burner and a couple of rats.

It's not that other sports are much different. Baseball and football certainly have their rogue elements. It's just that track can't afford to behave like this. It doesn't have the following — or to put it another way, nobody has Tyson Gay on his fantasy team.

Alas, there's such pressure on trackmen to break records — just to get folks' attention — that rule-bending has become the norm ... and everybody suffers because of it. And so we have Gay running a 9.84 and a 19.62 — into a breeze, no less — and skeptical fans looking for the Smoking Hypodermic Needle.

Perhaps track could improve its image if it took NASCAR's approach to punishment. Whenever a runner is nabbed cheating, don't ban him from competition, make him race — beginning from the back of the pack. Waaaaay back.

And if that doesn't work, outfit him with a restrictor plate.