- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2008

BEIJING

Last year’s world championships was a start for track and field. This is the real test.

Can the world’s best sprinters and hurdlers, throwers and distance runners stay clean with so much on the line?

There were no failed drug tests at the worlds, helping the sport begin to move on from a disgraceful period when world records were nullified, laws were broken, medals returned and, in the case of Marion Jones, an athlete was jailed.

The Olympics, of course, are a different ballgame. A bunch of clean tests in a non-Olympic year don’t mean much to the general public. But the athletes know the event is scandal-free, so track and field could rebound from falling behind swimming and gymnastics in television ratings.

“I have to believe that every athlete I compete against will be clean,” shot putter Reese Hoffa said. “I know the U.S. is definitely taking a lot of steps to make sure we’re clean.”

Said USOC chairman Peter Ueberroth: “This will be a clean team. A lot of factors make us comfortable. Athens and Torino make us comfortable. We want to have a reputation of bringing a clean team to international competitions.”

The IOC will conduct a record 4,500 drug tests during the games, and track and field is sure to be a point of emphasis.

While deriding the media for spending too much time covering the drug stories, U.S. track athletes acknowledge that until further notice doping will remain the major story line.

“We all know our sport has taken unfortunate steps backward, but it’s our responsibility to shed some light on our sport, and we can do that with some amazing performances in Beijing,” said Allyson Felix, a two-time world champion in the 200 meters. “We’re hoping that people will recognize the hard work we’ve put in.”

Barring a collapse, the clean U.S. team is expected to dominate the track and field medal count again.

At the worlds last year, the United States won 14 gold among 26 medals and led the standings in Athens with 25 medals. On the men’s side, the stars include Tyson Gay (100 meters), Jeremy Wariner (400), Kerron Clement (400 hurdles), Bernard Lagat (1,500 and 5,000), Hoffa (shot put) and decathlete Bryan Clay.

“Probably the strongest team we’ve ever sent to the Olympic Games,” coach Bubba Thornton said.

Felix leads the women’s team along with Sanya Richards (400) and Lolo Jones (100 hurdles).

Felix has taken over the mantle of best American female sprinter from Marion Jones, her childhood idol.

“It was personally devastating to see it was true about Marion,” she said. “I feel even more responsibility to be a role model because it would have been great for my role model to be clean.”

Felix and Clay are two of 12 athletes recruited by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to participate in “Project Believe.” The USADA asked the athletes to go through testing more often than World Anti-Doping Agency requirements.

Clay said this spring his tests were biweekly blood and urine exams.

A competitor in a nonsprinting event needs sponsorship dollars to attempt their craft on a nearly full-time basis. That’s why Clay joined the program.

“Anytime somebody tests positive, it’s a major thing,” Clay said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the trials, the Olympics, Christmas Day - it’s a big blow. It’s a bigger blow for the athletes who are trying to do things right because it does hinder our sponsorship opportunities and things that help us make a living. Quite frankly, it sucks.”

Said hurdler Terrence Trammell: “When you talk about specific dynamics, you also have to talk about marketability and the perception of this sport.”

Trammell added more can be done to showcase track and field’s uplifting stories and performances. The Olympics represent the sport’s newest opportunity.

“The biggest thing that has happened is that it put a cloud over our entire sport, but there are different aspects to track and athletes,” he said. “There are thousands that don’t use performance-enhancing drugs. With light being shed on the more positive things about the sport instead of drug scandals, it would help put the sport in a better light.”

Ueberroth hopes U.S. athletes have adopted a scared-straight attitude.

“They’re seeing the penalties, whether it’s dignity lost or jail time,” he said. “We’re trying to get ahead of the problem. There are absolutely no guarantees, but I think we’ll be fine.”

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