HERE WAS a novel idea. In the summer of 1999 U.S. shot-putter John Godina, who had already won two world titles and an Olympic silver medal, interrupted an interview with a business proposition: "How about if SPORTS ILLUSTRATED pays to drug-test me every day between now and the [Sydney] Olympics?" said Godina. "Blood, urine, the works. Then when I win the gold medal, you've got a big story: a guaranteed clean athlete."
This was in the uncertain days between Ben (Johnson) and BALCO, when high-profile drug busts in the track world were relatively rare, but every major meet was shadowed by suspicion. Godina's suggestion had allure but was too expensive; I don't know exactly how much it costs to drug-test an athlete every day, but it's a lot. We might just as well have followed Godina around 24/7, hewing to one of the credos of the doping culture: Never presume to know what somebody is doing in his bathroom.
Last weekend tens of thousands of spectators and athletes descended upon Philadelphia's ancient Franklin Field for the enduring Penn Relays, the closest thing to an Opening Day for outdoor track and field. It is an Olympic year, which adds urgency to every competition. Yet the sport commences its showcase season under an ever-darker cloud. The uncertain worries of a decade ago have given way to reality. Marion Jones—winner of five Olympic medals in 2000—is in prison after admitting to having lied to government investigators about using steroids. Justin Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist, is fighting the four-year suspension he received after a positive steroid test in '06. Maurice Greene, the Olympic 100 champion in 2000, has been connected by a report in The New York Times to a steroid dealer who is preparing to testify against Jones's and Gatlin's former coach, Trevor Graham, who goes on trial next month for allegedly giving false statements about providing drugs to athletes. (Greene denied using steroids and has never tested positive for a banned substance.)
The default reaction to this trend is to hold the next generation of track athletes responsible for proving themselves clean, thus restoring public confidence in their sport. The athletes understand this, and some are taking extraordinary steps. Sprinters Allyson Felix and Tyson Gay, each of whom won three golds at the '07 world championships, are among several athletes in multiple sports who have joined a pilot program created by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency aimed at leaving no doubt that participants are clean. The program is rigorous. Gay described being tested six times in two weeks in March, on each occasion providing urine and five vials of blood. Felix drives 30 miles from her home in Valencia, Calif., to a lab in Palmdale for an hourlong session of blood testing. "The program definitely requires a sacrifice," says Felix, 22. "But I want people to know that I'm a clean athlete, and I would be willing to do a lot more if it means bringing hope back to the sport I love."
But the regaining of trust has been tried so many times—Gatlin, who has claimed he doesn't know why he tested positive, was the new, clean face of track and field in 2004—that the public has grown fatigued and moved on. For every word of praise spoken for Gay and Felix (and others in the program, like decathlete Bryan Clay and swimmer Michael Phelps), there will be suspicion that designer steroids like those pedaled by the notorious Victor Conte remain undetectable.
Track and field is caught in a paradox. It is among the most popular high school participant sports in the U.S., trailing only football and basketball among boys and basketball among girls. Yet look at the broadcast plans for the Beijing Olympics. Under pressure from NBC, the International Olympic Committee has placed swimming and gymnastics in the morning, so they can be shown live in prime time in the U.S. The IOC left track and field in the nighttime hours in China, to be broadcast here on a delayed basis. Once, track and field was the centerpiece of U.S. Olympic coverage. That is no longer the case. It is dangerous for a network—or a magazine—to throw its passion behind track athletes, only to be embarrassed later when they are found to have cheated.
It is fair to suggest that track athletes have behaved no worse than baseball players, yet baseball still posts record attendance and revenue. Meanwhile track and field drifts away from the mainstream, forcing the likes of Felix and Gay to make lab rats of themselves to engender support. The reality is that the sport lacks the strong leadership needed to combat the culture of disbelief. It doesn't have the underpinnings of public support that baseball enjoys. Fans want baseball to succeed; it's the national pastime. Track has a devoted core audience, but it is not potent enough to shape public opinion.
Perversely, track and field has damaged itself with a vicious cycle of good intentions, testing its athletes endlessly (as much as 40 times a year, according to some athletes I have interviewed; and now Gay and Felix will get more than that), increasing the likelihood of finding cheaters. Baseball and pro football drug-test, but far less often and less effectively. Track is trapped in a sordid recent past, as media exposés and the continuing BALCO case (which includes the Graham trial) keep attention focused on tainted runners who are no longer competing.
Yet the greatest danger for track is not outrage; it is apathy. Gatlin's suspension was a huge story, breaking on the heels of Floyd Landis's fall in the Tour de France. Jones's admission last fall that she used steroids and lied about it moved the needle of public disgust a bit less. The allegations against Greene, one of the two greatest 100-meter runners in history (along with Carl Lewis), have been greeted by something akin to a nationwide shrug, almost as if it were expected. Another one bites the dust.
When a drugged track athlete is no longer, as Godina once said, a big story, a very steep climb is left for the next generation.
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In Beijing, track will be overshadowed by SWIMMING AND GYMNASTICS.
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND; MICHAEL DWYER/AP (SEATS); ED MULHOLLAND/US PRESSWIRE (ATHLETES)