Shortly after Tyson Gay completed his sensational victory in the 100-meter dash at the U.S. Olympic Trials, running the fastest time ever recorded for a human being, a friend told me this: "I wonder what he's on."
What drug, he meant.
That's the way it is for track and field these days. The sport has been banished to the corner of the sports universe, at least partly for its drug sins. Did you even know that the Olympic trials are under way in Eugene, Ore.? It's a well-kept secret judging from the newspaper and TV coverage, which has been relegated to tiny back-page notes columns and late-night cable.
It will be the same story in Beijing, where, thanks to NBC, the schedule has been arranged to give swimming and gymnastics the live, prime-time TV coverage in the U.S. while track, once the premier Olympic sport, will be shown on tape delay.
Years ago, I wrote a column that lamented the sad state of affairs in which track and field found itself and the inequities of the war on drugs in sport. Because track has subjected itself to the most serious testing program and metes out the most severe penalties for drug offenders, it has both helped and hurt the sport. By catching an extraordinary number of high-profile cheats, it has also developed the worst reputation this side of cycling.
Meanwhile, the NFL the sport that has the most to gain from steroids, yet has a lame drug program has been remarkably above suspicion.
As The New York Times more recently put it, "Track and field finds itself in an ironic position. Along with cycling, it tries harder to catch drug cheats than any other sport with stringent testing. Yet, the more drug users it catches, the worse its reputation becomes."
In some ways, track might have been better off if it had stuck its collective head in the sand the way Major League Baseball did for years and, one suspects, the way the NFL is doing now.
"The reward for doing the right thing is being labeled as having a drug problem," Craig Masback, the former chief executive of USA Track and Field, said in an interview last year.
Drug suspensions have claimed Olympic sprint champions, world record holders and world champions (Ben Johnson, Linford Christie, Justin Gatlin, Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Kelli White). It's the track equivalent of having Kobe Bryant or Peyton Manning suspended for a couple of years for cheating, as if that would ever happen.
The side effect of all this is that because of track's reputation, track athletes are considered guilty until proven innocent, and there is no way to prove they are innocent because drug tests have been proven vastly ineffective in catching cheats. Marion Jones reportedly took 160 tests and never flunked one of them; she has admitted to using drugs and is now in jail for lying to federal authorities.
Sign of the times: A dozen athletes five from track, four from cycling, three from swimming have voluntarily submitted themselves for blood and urine testing to prove they are clean, among them Gay and world champion sprinter Allyson Felix. The pilot program, the creation of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, reportedly tested Gay six times in just two weeks. Felix drives 30 miles to a lab for hour-long blood tests.
The program, which tests for human growth hormone, anabolic steroids, steroid precursors, stimulants, EPO and masking agents, consists of several blood and urine tests to establish a baseline for future tests. Blood samples will be frozen for as many as four years, allowing retesting to be performed in the future when tests are developed that can detect previously undetectable substances.
"The program definitely requires a sacrifice," Felix told Sports Illustrated. "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."While athletes in other sports can get away with whining about their rights to privacy and hiding behind the protection of a players union, track athletes don't have that luxury when so much cynicism dogs their sport.