In Olympic track, whispers of drugs cast a fog of doubt

When Chryste Gaines steps into the blocks for the first heats of the United States Track and Field Olympic trials here Friday afternoon, she could be seconds away from glory or a month from utter despair.

With four good 100-meter races during the next two days, Ms. Gaines will qualify a third straight time for the US Olympic team. Or, with a word from a court in Switzerland any time before the Games open next month, she could be banned forever from the sport.

After months of allegations, the effects of the biggest doping scandal in American history are finally coming into focus - in a word: confusion. As many as six athletes, including Gaines, could make the Olympic team here, only to be thrown off if charges of steroid use are upheld.

At stake is the success of the team that America sends to Athens. Each of the accused is an accomplished Olympian; each could affect the United States' medal haul. More than that, though, the crescendo of scandal threatens to temper American elation for what is normally one of the Summer Games' signature events, as every footfall raises some cloud of doubt, and every tick of the clock twists into a question mark.

"I'll question some of the performances when they're way out of line," says Yuji Shinfuku, a local resident who plans to attend the trials, which begin Friday. "Before, I might have given them the benefit of the doubt, but now the allegations confirm your worst fears."

The six stars in question

That skepticism will fall hardest on Gaines and the five other athletes who have been charged with steroid use. The charges come out of a federal investigation into a sports-nutrition lab named the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO.

The federal government alleges that BALCO distributed designer steroids to various athletes. As a result, US Olympic authorities charged several of the athletes with steroid use - relying in some cases on positive drug tests, and in others on circumstantial evidence. Six appealed, and they can continue to compete until the final ruling.

The uncertainty, however, has cast America's Olympic team into confusion. After all, these six are not likely to be also-rans in this week's races. Tim Montgomery is the world-record holder in the 100-meter dash. Michelle Collins is the world indoor 200-meter champion. Alvin Harrison won silver at 400 meters in the 2000 Games and has twice won gold on the 4 x 400 relay team.

If they win on the track this week but lose in court, the United States will have to scramble to replace them. "No team in any sport gives up that kind of experience without having some sort of effect," says Jon Hendershott of Track & Field News.

A swirl of rumor and accusation

If any country can handle such a blow, it is the United States, which remains the dominant force in world track and field.

A host of younger stars - from the compact rocket of 5-foot, 3-inch Lauryn Williams to the long-striding Sanya Richards - appear ready to rise to the Olympic level. Instead, the greater casualty might be track itself, as many of the stories and subplots have been drowned amid the tide of accusation.

Indeed, if the trials are a taste of what will come, the taste is decidedly sour. The talk is not so much about whether Stacy Draglia will pole-vault 16 feet or if Marion Jones can regain her five-medal mojo after having a child. It is whether all the drug allegations circling Jones will ever condense into a formal charge. Her former husband, a shot putter, tested positive for drugs at the 2000 Games. Her current husband is Montgomery, who is facing a lifetime ban. Yet no other solid evidence has yet emerged.

Still, in a hint of what some think might happen this summer, the swirl of scandal has begun to eat away at the golden-girl image Jones forged at the Sydney Olympics. "If I'm corporate America, and I think [track and field athletes] are a question mark, I shift my endorsement money away from track and field," says David Carter of the Sports Business Group in Redondo Beach, Calif.

A crackdown, or the taint of scandal?

To some, this is just a part of the purification of US Olympic sport. Long seen as weak on drug enforcement, US officials are setting a new tone - one that could make would-be dopers think twice.

"[Authorities] are doing a very good job and providing a good platform for intervention and deterrence of doping," says Steven Ungerleider, author of "Faust's Gold: Inside the East German Doping Machine," in an e-mail. "It is quite significant, and we are seeing a historic moment in the paradigm shift of what is the perceived notion on using performance-enhancing drugs."

To others, though, the focus on scandal at the expense of achievement is a shame. Beneath the silver glint of the bleachers of the Alex Spanos Sports Complex here, volunteer Antone Bogetti pauses from his chores to spare a thought from the athletes. "A lot of these guys have worked hard for four years to get to this point," he says. "And a few are going to ruin it for the rest."

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