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Showcase sport missing big names

8/20/2004

ATHENS, Greece -- No Marion. No Torri. No Chryste.

American sprinters Marion Jones, Torri Edwards and Chryste
Gaines are just three of the big names that will be missing -- many
of them due to doping -- when the Olympic track competition begins
Friday.

The biggest impact will be in the six sprints. In the men's and
women's 100, 200 and 400, only one Olympic champion, Maurice Greene
in the 100, will defend a title. And with three of their top
sprinters missing, American women may have a rough time trying to
extend a 20-year streak of 100-meter gold when the track
competition begins Friday.

Jones, who is being investigated by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency,
did not qualify in the 100 or 200 after winning both titles at the
2000 Games. Cathy Freeman, who won the 400 in Sydney, has retired.

Kostas Kenteris was the 200 champion at Sydney. He and training
partner Katerina Thanou, who took silver in the 100 in Sydney,
withdrew this week amid missed drug tests and a suspicious
motorcycle accident. In the 400, champion Michael Johnson has
retired.

Several other no-shows are involved in doping cases, leaving
fans wondering about the state of the Olympics' showcase sport.

"I think the faster you run, the less they're going to think
you're a clean athlete," said U.S. sprinter Lauryn Williams, 20, a
member of track's new generation. "I don't think it's fair."

Tim Montgomery, world record holder in the 100, failed to
qualify. So did Gaines, who would have been a medal contender in
the women's sprints. And Michelle Collins, one of the world's best
at the 400, dropped out of the U.S. Olympic trials with an injury.

All three have been charged with steroid use by USADA and face
lifetime bans if found guilty. Like Jones, all have denied using
performance-enhancing substances.

Edwards was kicked out of the Olympics and suspended for two
years for taking pills without checking to make sure they didn't
contain banned stimulants. She is the world champion, ranked No. 1
this year in the 100 and would have been a 200 medal contender as
well.

And Kelli White, who won the 100 and 200 at last year's world
championships but later forfeited her titles when she admitted
using several different banned drugs, is suspended for two years.

That leaves 37-year-old Gail Devers as the top-ranked American
in the 100, She has won Olympic gold twice before in the 100 but is
considered a long shot this time. She is seventh in the world
rankings, while countrywomen Lauryn Williams and LaTasha Colander
are tied for 19th.

The first two rounds of the women's 100 are set for Friday, with
the semifinals and final on Saturday.

Some athletes will compete despite serious injuries.

Australia's Jana Pittman, the world champion, will try to
compete in the 400-meter hurdles less than two weeks after having
knee surgery. And Haile Gebrselassie knows his chances of a third
straight Olympic title in the 10,000 are slim because of an
Achilles tendon injury and the presence of Ethiopian compatriot
Kenenisa Bekele, 22, who shattered the 31-year-old Gebrselassie's
world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 within a nine-day span this
spring.

Bekele will attempt to win both races in Athens.

One of the best competitions should come in the women's pole
vault, in which American Stacy Dragila and Russians Svetlana
Feofanova and Yelena Isinbayeva have been taking turns breaking the
world record the last couple of years.

"When I get in that stadium against the two of them, the tiger
is going to come out," Dragila said. "I would love to be on that
top step of the podium. I go to bed visualizing that's where I'm
going to be."

Workers put the finishing touches on the 75,000-seat Olympic
stadium Thursday, spray-painting the Olympic rings in red on the
track and pounding the last few squares of grass into place on an
infield that was stripped for the opening ceremony.

Medal presenters practiced their routines around a victory stand
that awaited a good cleaning. Fences from the opening ceremony
stood where hurdles were soon to be positioned.

The shot put was held Wednesday in Ancient Olympia. U.S.
competitor Laura Gerraughty said the birthplace of the games 28
centuries ago had "kind of a ghostly feeling."

For the next 10 days, the only ghosts at the Olympic stadium
will be those of missing athletes.