Can't outrun controversy


The words of wisdom on the Olympic drug front came from a shot-putter. And I am not making that up. The irony is purely unintended.

Still, speaking of the steroid scandal that the U.S. Track and Field Trials will be carrying with it right into its Friday opening in Sacramento, Calif., it fell to Adam Nelson, one of the highest practitioners of his bulky and oft-suspected sport, to cut things down to the skinny.

"If you have nothing to fear," Nelson said of the latest round of testing processes, "then it's not going to bother you one bit."

And so the irony goes.

While the Olympic swim trials are played out downstate in Long Beach, amid talk mostly of Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin and world records and Mark Spitz-ian attempts, the track trials in Sacramento are the drug trials in Sacramento. The story of the day -- pick a day, any day -- is what constitutes an illegal edge, and who it can be proved is trying to gain one.

Some genuinely great storylines -- Stacy Dragila in the women's pole vault, Alan Webb in the men's 1500 -- will serve as window dressing to the larger display of controversy. And the show begins immediately: Marion Jones, who four years ago used the Trials to announce herself as the preeminent female athlete of her generation, will run in the women's 100-meter heats late Friday as a figure known lately for her aggressive counter-attack on drug rumors.

"We're dealing with an unfair process," Jones said during the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., a few weeks ago. "It's funny: I'm the big name (associated with the scandal), and yet I haven't received a letter."

Ah, the letter. The track trials are also about the letter. Alvin Harrison got one, and so did 100 world record-holder (and Jones' boyfriend) Tim Montgomery, as well as sprinters Chryste Gaines and Michelle Collins. The letter informed the recipient that, based upon the finding of "non-analytical positives," he or she faced a lifetime ban from the sport by the U.S. Anti Doping Agency (USADA).

"Non-analytical positive," of course, means there is no actual failed drug test to bring forth in evidence -- fitting in these cases, since they revolve around the BALCO scandal and the previously untestable enhancer THG. But the fallout from the roundabout proving process is that the international governing body of track, IAAF, won't intervene in any of the cases, since there's no test result to hold up as clear evidence of cheating.

All of which, sadly, suggests that, while the Trials are conducted in Sacramento -- with every one of the aforementioned athletes competing, pending protracted challenges to their cases -- it is by no means clear that USA Track & Field officials can yet know which team they'll actually be sending to Athens.

Could a BALCO-tainted athlete take one of the three available spots on the U.S. team in his or her given event? Absolutely -- pending resolution of the drug case. Could an athlete gain legal intervention to stay on the team, only to ultimately have the lifetime ban imposed sometime after Athens? Yup.

Does U.S. track's recent habit of airing all its dirty linen tend to portray the sport as more corrupt than it might actually be, compared with the more secretive and protective NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and others? Track's people will be the first to declare it.

"Nothing is more challenging or dispiriting than the situation in which we find ourselves," USA Track & Field executive Craig Masback wrote his board of directors this week. "Instead of a daily celebration of our great sport and our outstanding athletes, newspapers around the world are delivering news of scandal and shame related to some of our athletes and coaches. We and our sport deserve better."

Masback maintains that it's a fractional percentage of athletes doing the dirty work and the BALCO scandalizing. When pressed on it, the former elite runner admits that his opinion is based mostly upon his personal observation, not anything he can prove. And there's the rub. Track is in the headlines lately for much of what hasn't yet even been proved, much less seriously contested -- and those headlines carry the day.

They will carry the Trials, as well. Jones is set to compete in the 100, the 200 and the women's long jump over the next 10 days, but it's obvious that her most difficult hurdle now is public opinion. She came to Sacramento four years ago as a shimmering example of the peaks to which athletes in the United States can aspire. In 2004, Jones is more suspect than the entire men's shot-put field. That's the kind of turnabout that is almost too ironic to chart.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com