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Riveting show proves track can persevere.

Byline: Ron Bellamy / The Register-Guard

SACRAMENTO - The other day, in a sometimes contentious news conference dominated by the issue of doping violations in track and field, the head coach of the U.S. Olympic men's team offered a dose of reason.

"I don't think the sport is in trouble, but I do think there are some people who are in trouble," George Williams said, as the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials continued at Hornet Stadium.

I would agree with that.

This has been a tough year for U.S. track and field, and we haven't heard the last of BALCO, and the designer steroid THG, and potential lifetime suspensions for some elite athletes. We haven't heard all the names that we're going to hear in connection with this issue, too.

The story might get darker before it gets brighter.

But last week, Craig Masback, the chief executive officer of USA Track & Field, was asked whether the next six weeks, between the Trials and the Olympics, are a "make or break" stretch for track.

And they're not, of course.

First, because the sport has too much history, and too much grass-roots appeal, to be so easily dismissed. Second, because it will take much longer than that to follow the BALCO story to the final page. In that, I think Masback has set the right tone for the sport in recent months. He hasn't been defensive recently; he's talked about how the sport needs to "embrace" the issue, fix its problems, and go forward.

"I can't predict how long it will take," he said. "We have to send a clear message at all times that cheating is wrong, and we have to work on this from the time people enter our sport, until the time they leave it.

"You can't manage this issue, you can't make it go away. Sports that are trying to manage it or make it go away will find that it catches up with them. There's no turning back for us. We need to embrace this fight to the best of our ability, and we need to win it as soon as we can."

As you read about track's doping problems - and, if you care about the sport, you have every reason to be concerned, upset and angry - keep in mind that track and field, as a rule, is far more forthright on this issue than most sports. It's had drug-testing longer; it's thrown more people out.

By contrast, Major League Baseball had a far higher percentage of positive tests for steroids, when the ballplayers knew specifically when the test was coming. The NHL doesn't even test for steroids.

In his State of the Union message earlier this year, President Bush called upon sports to eliminate performance-enhancing drugs. You have to think, though, that the battering that U.S. track and field has taken over this issue won't give other sports much incentive to "embrace" it.

Though you could theorize that the scandal won't help track and field recruit new fans, and while you have to believe that it will make sponsors more nervous, or at least more careful, as they market individual athletes, it must be said that the established track and field fans seem to be no less passionate.

Television ratings for track have been up, attendance at big meets has been up; there were more than 20,000 fans at Hornet Stadium on Saturday, and 22,107 Sunday, and they've been loud, and enthusiastic, and supportive of athletes, whether they're the half-dozen or so who came here under suspicion, or whether they're among the almost 1,000 athletes who came here under no cloud at all.

Sunday was a great show.

The popular Maurice Greene set an Olympic Trials record in the 100, running 9.91 seconds in the fastest wind-legal Olympic Trials 100 ever as runners-up Justin Gatlin and Shawn Crawford were clocked in 9.92 and 9.93; that's amazingly close, and amazingly fast.

Sheena Johnson ran 52.95 in the women's 400-meter hurdles, an Olympic Trials record, a U.S. championships record and the fastest time ever by an American on American soil. Tiombe Hurd soared 47 feet, 5 inches in the women's triple jump, an American record.

The pole vault, in perfect conditions, the flags hanging limp in a hot, windless sky, was riveting. The U.S. will have three first-time Olympians - Tim Mack, Toby Stevenson and Derek Miles. Stevenson's celebrations as he cleared bar after bar - ripping off his trademark helmet, gyrating in the pit - were wonderful to watch.

It's hard to look at the evolving U.S. Olympic team and think that it will be somehow crippled by BALCO; more likely, the team's strengths and weaknesses will be as they traditionally have been.

"I think we'll win more medals than any country out there," Williams said. "We have athletes we can trust."

You hope he meant that in every sense of the word.

CAPTION(S):

Tim Mack's winning effort in the pole vault highlighted an encouraging day at the U.S. Olympic Trials on Sunday.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 12, 2004
Words:848
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