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ON TRACK AND FIELD

Not thrilled with this event

Athletes are tired of talking about doping

All weekend inside the Reggie Lewis Center, track's most intimate hothouse, the buzz was about Olympus. Gail Devers was here and Maurice Greene and Allen Johnson and Stacy Dragila. The official task at hand was to make the United States team for this week's World Indoor Championships in Budapest, but everybody was talking about Athens and this summer's trials in Sacramento and the various outdoor relays and invitationals along the way.

Outside of the building, though, the talk has been all about indictments and lawsuits, about two-year bans and revoked medals, about designer steroids and Modafinil, which used to be for sleepyheads until sprinters discovered it. Who knew how hard it was to stay awake for 10 seconds?.

The runners and jumpers and tossers, especially those who've never been jacked and juiced, are thoroughly weary of hearing about doping by now. "I really don't want to go there," miler Suzy Favor Hamilton said yesterday when the issue was brought up. "Next?"

The athletes would much rather talk about times, heights, and distances, the "faster, higher, stronger" essence of Olympism. But drug talk is unavoidable these days, now that the president has mentioned steroids in his State of the Union address and a parade of professional athletes has testified before a federal grand jury investing a Bay Area supplements lab.

For track people, the benefit is that more cheaters than ever are being caught and punished and that the terrible toll anabolics and stimulants take on the body has been documented beyond dispute. But the drawback is that the world has cast what may be a permanently skeptical eye at its oldest and simplest sport.

Any extraordinary performance is immediately under suspicion -- what would be made of Bob Beaman's Great Leap Forward now? It's terribly unfair to the majority of competitors whose medals and records are earned by talent and sweat and heart, but it's understandable, given recent history.

Kelli White comes blazing out of the blocks to win the 100 and 200 at last summer's worlds and tests positive for Modafinil before she even gets to anchor the relay. Kevin Toth puts the shot more than 74 feet, the best mark in the world in 13 years. Turns out he was taking both steroids and Modafinil last year. Regina Jacobs was running incredible miles for a 40-year-old woman. Incredible, indeed.

After a while, the names and the drugs and the penalties blur. All it takes now is walking into a courthouse for a clean athlete to fall under the same shadow as the banned-for-lifers. Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, the world's fastest couple, haven't tested positive, but they were subpoenaed anyway for the BALCO case. Does the public know enough to draw the distinction?

That is track's biggest problem at the moment, that the casual fan (i.e. anybody who doesn't subscribe to Track & Field News) is confused and turned off by all the doping talk and doesn't have the knowledge or interest to want to sort it all out. The temptation is to throw up one's hands, as the public has done with boxing and weightlifting, and turn its interest and passion elsewhere.

That's the difference between track and baseball and football, which have been so hard-wired into the American psyche by now that no amount of scandal can keep fans from caring, even if they're holding their noses.

For most folks, track exists for two weeks every four years. (Who's the men's world 100 champion? Hint: It's not an American.) It's just the sport's bad luck that the unsavory stuff is happening now, when everybody is beginning to pay attention. And the undoped athletes, as usual, are taking the hit.

The biggest international story in the sport for months, before and since BALCO, has been the Jerome Young saga. Young is the US quarter-miler who was allowed to compete in the 2000 Olympics despite having tested positive for steroids. Everybody from the International Olympic Committee to the United States Olympic Committee to the International Amateur Athletic Federation got involved in a tug of war with USA Track & Field over disclosing his name, even though it already had been published. And it goes on, amid appeals and lawsuits.

Who'll be the losers, if the Lords of the Rings decide to rescind his gold medal, which Young earned as a relay alternate? The four guys who actually ran the final -- Alvin Harrison, Antonio Pettigrew, Calvin Harrison, and Michael Johnson. Them's the rules.

"If there's any fairness in the world," said US federation chief executive Craig Masback, "there should be no question about the medals of the other athletes."

If there were fairness, Favor Hamilton would have been the top-ranked American women's miler last year. Instead, Jacobs was. If the selectors had known what had been rumored -- that Jacobs was on steroids at the US championships -- Favor Hamilton would have been No. 1. She may get the national title after all, but she never got to break the tape. That is the worst thing about athletes who cheat -- we never get to watch what should have been.

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