Image: Tyson Gay
Mike Blake  /  Reuters file
Track and field used to be the pride of the Olympics, but has been sullied by doping scandals. Sprinter Tyson Gay is one of the many who is hoping to put the sport back on track.
updated 7/15/2008 12:15:45 PM ET 2008-07-15T16:15:45

From the days of ancient Greece, through the days of Jesse Owens, Bruce Jenner and Carl Lewis, track and field held pride of place at the Olympics — and produced many of the biggest stars.

It’s not as though BMX, trampoline or beach volleyball was on anyone’s mind when the founders of the modern games dreamed up the “faster, higher, stronger” motto.

That was then.

Doping cases have claimed some of track and field’s most prominent names, a portion of its popularity and, in the eyes of some, its legitimacy. As in: When someone does the very thing we hope for — produces a superhuman performance by running faster or jumping higher or throwing farther than anyone ever has — is it real? Can we believe what we see?

Shedding a light
Track and field is slouching toward Beijing. To climb back on its pedestal, the sport needs the world to pay attention to the compelling story lines at these Summer Games, highlighted by what could be the greatest men’s 100-meter race in history and a Chinese megastar named Liu Xiang.

“You definitely can get fed up with a sport — so many scandals or whatever. But I think that there are clean athletes out here just trying to put the performances back up there,” said Allyson Felix, an American sprinter who could win gold medals in the 200 meters along with two relays and become a breakthrough star at these Olympics.

“We’re really doing all that we can,” she said, “to shed some light — positive light — back onto our sport.”

Felix and her competitors are all too aware that so many of the headlines generated by track athletes in recent years have been negative:

  • Tim Montgomery Stripped of World Record
  • Olympic Champion Justin Gatlin Goes to Court to Fight Doping Ban
  • Coach Trevor Graham Convicted in BALCO-Connected Case
  • Marion Jones Admits Doping
  • Marion Jones Heads to Jail
  • Marion Jones Returns Olympic Medals

And so on.

Evident pecking order
Filling the void, at least in the United States, are swimming, led by Michael Phelps, and gymnastics, led by Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin.

TV exposure tells the story.

With the recent U.S. track trials and the swimming trials running concurrently, NBC chose to place Bob Costas, the face of its Olympics coverage, by the pool in Omaha, Neb., rather than trackside in Eugene, Ore.

That pecking order will be evident in China, too. During the Aug. 8-24 Olympics, swimming and gymnastics will be broadcast as they happen in prime time in the United States, even though that meant switching the start times to morning in Beijing. Track and field will be shown in the evening, but on tape — the suspense of the results gone in this wired world.

The trials in those three sports were illustrative. The overnight ratings on NBC averaged 3.9 for swimming, 3.3 for gymnastics and 3.2 for track and field.

The network insists track hasn’t lost its luster.

“For an American audience, in no particular order, there’s gymnastics, swimming, track and field, diving and beach volleyball,” NBC executive vice president David Neal said. “Those are sort of the top tier, and (track is) solidly in that top tier.”

But Tyson Gay, one of three sprinters expected to threaten the 100 world record in Beijing, notices that his sport has been nudged to the side.

“What can bring it back is a lot of guys like myself stepping out and talking about being drug-free and running fast times and showing everyone that you can do it natural,” said Gay, whose soft-spoken nature is quite a contrast to bombastic sprinters of the past. “I really think we can bring track back.”

It hardly helps, though, that Gay and some of the other athletes who are the closest things to household names in the United States won’t be getting full exposure in China.

He ran the 100 in a wind-aided 9.68 seconds at the trials June 29 — the best time ever recorded, under any conditions — but he crumpled with a hamstring injury in 200 qualifying six days later, so he won’t compete in the longer race at the Olympics. As it is, there are lingering questions about how fit he’ll be.

Felix, meanwhile, failed to make the U.S. team in the 100. Alan Webb, who gained national attention by breaking Jim Ryun’s 36-year-old U.S. high school mile record in 2001, finished fifth at 1,500 in Eugene, not good enough to make the American roster.

Eight-time U.S. javelin champion and national record holder Breaux Greer, as gregarious a personality as there is in any sport, was placed on the team after failing to qualify at the trials, but past Olympic gold medalists Dwight Phillips (long jump), Tim Mack (pole vault) or Allen Johnson (110-meter hurdles) won’t be in Beijing.

Plenty of highlights

All that said, there are plenty of highlights waiting to happen.

Start with the race to be the world’s fastest man. If the 100 meters plays out as expected, the final will include Gay and Jamaicans Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell — all of whom have run legal times of 9.77 seconds or lower. Powell held the world record of 9.74 until Bolt broke it with a breathtaking 9.72 in May.

“I still think the 100-meter dash is the most exciting event in the Olympics,” Gay said, “and a lot of fans do, too.”

There’s more to look forward to at the Bird’s Nest, the 91,000-capacity National Stadium, and no one will draw attention from the locals the way Liu will.

He is the reigning Olympic and world champion in the 110-meter hurdles, making him China’s best shot for a gold medal on the track. But his world record was snatched away by Cuba’s Dayron Robles in June, setting up a showdown — and only adding to the pressure.

“When you imagine 1.3 billion Chinese citizens watching Liu Xiang go to the start line to defend his Olympic title — there’s no question that the weight of his entire country’s expectations will be on his shoulders,” NBC’s Neal said. “That should just be an amazing, dramatic moment. I can’t wait for that.”

Other performers to watch include Jeremy Wariner, another Olympic and world champion, whose publicly stated goal is to break Michael Johnson’s record in the 400 meters. The subplots: Johnson is Wariner’s manager; Wariner recently split from coach Clyde Hart, who also worked with Johnson. And the catch: Wariner was beaten by LaShawn Merritt twice this year, including at the trials.

There are inspirational stories.

Oscar Pistorius is a double-amputee sprinter from South Africa who runs on prosthetic blades and is trying to log an Olympic-qualifying time. Lopez Lomong, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” — young refugees of the civil war in that country who made it to the United States — who will represent his new home in the 1,500. Sanya Richards is a dominant 400-meter specialist for the U.S. who takes medicine to manage a rare disorder that has caused painful ulcers in her mouth and on her legs.

“I’m hoping fans will begin to have more faith in our sport, but that’s more about actions than words,” Richards said. “Because you can say you’re clean over and over again, but it’s really in your actions and running well and never testing positive.”

So here, then, is the good news for the sport, news that everyone from USA Track & Field president Bill Roe to hurdler-turned-agent Renaldo Nehemiah to the athletes themselves love to point out whenever they get the chance: There hasn’t been bad news in quite some time.

No truly prominent track athlete from any country failed a drug test this year. No one came up positive at the sport’s 2007 world championships.

“That’s a (testament) to the sport being cleaned up, and I’m really excited about how far we’ve come since the 2004 Games,” said Lauryn Williams, a silver medalist in the 100 at the last Olympics who will run that event again for the United States. “People are doing a better job of cleaning themselves up and getting athletes that are cheating out.”

Keeping clean. It’s clearly Step 1 in track’s comeback.

Here’s the rest of the formula: stirring stories, and a world record or two.

“Look at swimming: Michael Phelps won how many gold medals and broke how many records at the Olympics in ’04?” said Wallace Spearmon, a medal contender for the U.S. at 200 meters. “If people go out and get great performances — 9.7 in the 100; 19.5 or 19.6 in the 200; Jeremy (Wariner) goes out there and does his thing — I believe track and field will be right back where it needs to be.

“Where,” Spearmon added, “it deserves to be.”

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