Sunday, July 18, 2004

U.S. track team, hurt by doping, still a powerhouse



By Steve Wilstein
AP Sports Columnist

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - As the decathletes labored from one event to the next, and the sprinters ran their heats, the setting sun burnished the clouds over the stadium in brilliant hues of gold, silver and bronze against a blue-ribbon sky.

It was a moment of staggering beauty that trivialized all the ugly, little stories about doping that have been drip, drip, dripping out of the U.S. Olympic track and field trials the past week, like water torture for the sport.

Here were some of the world's best athletes competing passionately, pushing their bodies to the edge of exhaustion, for the privilege of representing their country at the Olympics in Athens next month.

They were young men and women, many inspired as teens watching the Atlanta Games in 1996. They had their share of troubles and triumphs and stirring stories to tell.

Adriane Blewitt, a 24-year-old shot putter, wore a shirt that read "I Kicked Cancer's Butt." She spoke of how she had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma last October and went through chemotherapy. She lost 20 pounds and 40 percent of her strength, she said, before she began pumping iron again in January. She's been cancer-free since April.

"This has totally changed my outlook on throwing and I have a great appreciation for my family and friends who supported me," Blewitt said. "Coming into this event, I had hoped to just make the finals. To get fit is so rewarding. I can't stop smiling. I'm ready to go another four years."

Blewitt didn't make the team, finishing a credible fifth among 12 in the finals, and her story was obscured by all the attention paid to the latest doping cases and to Marion Jones, who dropped out of the 200 semifinals Saturday while claiming fatigue. But Blewitt was one of many athletes who deserved attention for the efforts they were giving.

With a dozen finals still to be held Sunday, the U.S. track and field team - even after the drug busts of several high-profile athletes - is shaping up to be considerably younger and potentially better than the one that garnered 20 medals, including 10 golds, in Sydney four years ago.

Some of the athletes who have been sidelined or are accused of using drugs - Tim Montgomery, Regina Jacobs, Kevin Toth, among them - weren't expected to win medals again. The ones who were, including sprinters Kelli White, Chryste Gaines and Michelle Collins, won't be missed all that much.

The goal is to send a clean team to Athens, but more than that it is to send a clean team that can win.

"I am cautiously optimistic that this will be our best team since 1992," said Craig Masback, CEO of USA Track and Field. "Nobody is a lock but we've got a great combination of wise veterans who know how to get it done and have proven that and some really exciting newcomers."

On their home turf in Atlanta, American track and field athletes won 13 golds and 23 medals overall. Four years earlier in Barcelona, they won 12 golds and 30 overall. It's not inconceivable that this team will match that.

One of the new faces who could bring home a medal is 20-year-old Jeremy Wariner, who has the best time in the world this year in the 400. Justin Gatlin, 22, and Shawn Crawford, 26, are medal contenders in the 100. Walter Davis, 25, has a shot in the triple jump. Toby Stevenson, 27, has the best pole vault in the world this year.

Among the old goats there's 30-year-old Maurice Greene, with his G-O-A-T tattoo ("Greatest of All Time"). He's favored to repeat as the 100 gold medalist. Adam Nelson, 29, and John Godina, 32, are medal contenders in the shot put.

On the women's team so far, medal contenders include: Lauryn Williams, 20, LaTasha Colander, 27, and Torri Edwards, 27, in the 100, if Edwards can overcome a doping case against her; Sheena Johnson, 21, in the 400 hurdles; Grace Upshaw, 28, in the long jump; Shelia Burrell, 32, in the heptathlon; Monique Hennagan, 28, Sanya Richards, 19, and DeeDee Trotter, 21, in the 400; and Jearl Miles-Clark, 37, in the 800.

Marion Jones, the five-time medalist in Sydney, has a good shot to improve on the bronze she won in the long jump there - though she remains under investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

The steroid stories haven't scared away talented young athletes. On the contrary, the punishment of the dopesters may have created an opening for clean athletes trying to break into the ranks of the international elite.

"Participation at every level of the sport is up," Masback said. "Our ratings are up. The attendance at our events are up."

Doping is a big story in track, an important one, but sometimes all of us focus so much on those who are cheating we overlook the hundreds of clean athletes who are more compelling in their own right. We peer into the darkness of the sport when, truthfully, there are many more athletes with stories as luminous as the sunset over the stadium.

---

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org




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