Doping cloud hangs over track trials

Public skepticism likely in wake of BALCO scandal

Olympics

July 09, 2004|By Philip Hersh | Philip Hersh,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Everyone associated with track and field in this country finally has stopped denying there is an elephant in the room.

The pachyderm actually has taken over the whole house at the most inopportune time, the few weeks every fourth year when company is expected in the form of rare fan interest.

With the added attention created by the Olympics, most sports fans should be aware a doping beast has lived among U.S. track athletes for at least two decades. Six athletes scheduled to compete in the U.S. Olympic trials beginning today are even facing doping charges.

And that group doesn't include one of the sport's superstars, Marion Jones, who is charged with nothing but vaguely implicated in the scandal that has turned the track trials into an exercise bordering on the absurd.

John Capel, reigning world champion at 200 meters, takes the cynical view that this may increase interest in the trials.

"It will help the ratings," Capel said. "In America, we love controversy. People will watch, and they will eat up the idea of one athlete lining up against someone who is in trouble. They'll be wondering if he is doing [drugs] right now."

But what happens if one or more of the maybe-dirty half-dozen, a group including 100-meter world record-holder Tim Montgomery, qualifies for the U.S. team with a top-three finish in one of the 39 events to be contested in the next 10 days, only to be banned later?

And how do those athletes claiming to perform without enhancement convince anyone of their rectitude?

"We are being confronted with an issue that has plagued the sport for a long, long time," 2000 Olympic shot put silver medalist Adam Nelson said. "People cheating is no different than it was 20 years ago, but this situation certainly is casting doubt and suspicion over the rest of the athletes."

Craig Masback, chief executive officer of USA Track & Field, said this week the sport has a "small sub-culture of cheaters" and "the vast majority of our elite athletes never even contemplate cheating."

World Anti-Doping Agency chief Dick Pound, a frequent critic of Masback's stewardship of the sport, agrees.

Doping expert Charles Yesalis of Penn State is far less sanguine.

"People are starting to realize it's not a few bad apples in the barrel, but only a few good ones," Yesalis said.

NOTE: Jones' ex-husband appeared yesterday before the grand jury in the BALCO case, the San Jose Mercury News reported in today's editions.

The newspaper said C.J. Hunter declined to comment when asked why he was outside a San Francisco courthouse, but that his attorney, Angela De Ment, said she and Hunter had flown in from North Carolina as part of their cooperation with federal authorities.

Hunter, who won a shot put world title in 1999, tested positive for steroids four times in 2000 - when he was married to Jones.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

At a glance

What: U.S. Olympic track and field trials

Where: Sacramento, Calif.

When: Today-July 18

TV: USA today and Tuesday-Thursday; NBC tomorrow-Sunday and July 17-18

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