Top dogs are passing tests, but observers are left to wonder

EUGENE - Sprinters are special.

Such a combination of raw strength and speed.

Often with the panache of a prizefighter.

Unfortunately, also often with the doping record of a cyclist.

As Carmelita Jeter and Walter Dix raced to victory in the women's and men's 100 at the U.S. Track and Field Championships at Hayward Field Friday night, I marveled at their brilliance.

I also wondered if they are using performance-enhancing drugs.

Both are clean, if tests performed by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency are to be believed.

Jeter had 28 officials tests in 2009 and 2010, all clean. Dix has passed on all 21 of his tests over the same period.

But no sport outside of cycling is more associated with steroid use than track and field. And sprinters are in the eye of the storm.

Much of the media attention Friday night was focused not on Jeter and Dix but on Justin Gatlin, who continued a successful return from a four-year ban for steroid use by finishing second to Dix, losing by an eyelash - 9.94 to 9.95.

Gatlin, 29, could have won had he not slowed to celebrate near the finish line.

'I thought I won,' said Gatlin, who dropped to his hands and knees and cried tears of joy after the race. 'The last four years, I had so much pent-up frustration and sadness and emotion and anger. Just before I hit the finish line, I had to let it all out.'

Gatlin has maintained his innocence since an April 2006 positive test for testosterone, blaming a vengeful Eugene masseur for rubbing with cream with the banned steroid on his body without his knowledge.

The 2004 Olympic champion's suspension was twice the usual two years because it was his second positive test.

Gatlin is not alone.

Think about all the great sprinters over the past three decades who have received suspensions for steroid use.

Ben Johnson. Marion Jones. Gatlin.

The incomparable Florence Griffith-Joyner never did, but she failed in the court of public opinion. When she died at age 38 after an epileptic seizure, suspicions didn't cease.

A 2003 report by a former USADA official said that Carl Lewis' positive test at the 1988 Olympic trials was covered up.

Lewis, who denied the report, later accused 2008 Olympic champion and world-record holder Usain Bolt of using steroids. Bolt has never tested positive.

'For someone to run 10.03 one year and 9.69 the next, if you don't question that in a sport that has the reputation for it right now, you're a fool,' Lewis said.

See what I mean?

Jeter has never tested positive, but she was formerly coached by Larry Wade, who served a doping suspension and was linked to a major steroids dealer. Her current coach is John Smith, who has been linked to Victor Conte, who served time in prison for his part in the BALCO controversy that brought down Barry Bonds, among others.

One of the big problems with detecting steroid use is the preponderence of masking agents. Chemists who develop them are often one step ahead of those with the USADA who develop the tests.

After Friday's 100, Dix spent much of his time answering questions about Gatlin, who will join him on the U.S. team that competes in the world championships at Daegu, South Korea, later this summer.

'He has always had that kind of talent, even before the accusations,' Dix said. 'He was running 9.9s and 19.8s in college. His talent is unquestionable.'

Dix was asked how he feels about competing against Gatlin.

'I don't have a problem with him competing,' Dix said. 'I don't have a problem competing against him. Let the best line up, whether they're clean or not.'

Hmmm. Asked if he believed Gatlin cheated, Dix shrugged.

'I don't really know the facts to that story,' Dix said. 'If he did or he didn't, there are people still in this sport doping today who are and not getting caught. Regardless of the facts, you're going to have to compete against them and be at your best.'

It's interesting that, at an age when most sprinters are over the hill, Jeter is getting better.

Ranked No. 1 in the world the past two years, the sister of ex-University of Portland basketball standout Pooh Jeter - who won Friday in a wind-aided 10.74 and won the Prefontaine Classic in a legal 10.70 - seems poised to better her personal best of 10.64 set in 2009.

There are a few examples of late greatness. Gail Devers won the Olympics 100 at age 29 and the 100 hurdles at the world championships at 32. Jamaica's Merlene Ottey won silver in the 100 and 200 at the Olympics at 36. Lewis, the greatest sprinter of his time, won the Olympics long jump at 35.

'It depends on the person and his or her lifestyle,' said Smith, Jeter's coach the past three years. 'You can't say what they can or can't do. (Great sprinters) are not average people.

'With today's foods, information, science - the positive aspects of what we dwell on - you get direct results from that.'

The negative aspects of what we dwell on, I suppose, have to do with banned-substance abuse.

Gatlin said public support has been meaningful to him as he has mounted his comeback.

'Even on the Internet, I haven't come across a lot of hatred or criticism,' he said. 'One reason I was able to gather so much power and come back is so many well-wishers. That means a lot to me.'

I asked Gatlin if he can run faster than ever before - his 9.77 PR has been nullified due to the suspension - as he nears his 30th birthday, an advanced age for a sprinter.

'Being out for four years has given me a lot more shelf life,' he said. 'The only thing I need to work on is muscle memory - getting the kinks out. It's about coming back and being confident.'

Added the ebullient Gatlin, in a sort of Muhammad Ali style: 'My confidence has always been ahead of my physical. I'm a champion kind of person.'

Somebody asked if the 2006 test still haunts him.

'That was four (actually five) years ago,' he said. 'The story hasn't changed. Nothing else has come out (in the way of a positive test). I just want to run and focus on that.'

Just as I'd like to believe that Lance Armstrong won seven straight Tour de France titles without banned substances, I'd like to think that Jeter and Gatlin can do their thing without juicing.

As Carl Lewis himself said, I'd be a fool not to wonder.

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