Guilt By Association

By Steve Politi
Updated: May 31, 2008

NEW YORK — Life as the fastest man in the world isn’t nearly as cool as it used to be. There are the vials of blood, drawn so often that even Dracula would yell “enough!” There are the endless questions about the misdeeds of others. Above all, there is the doubt after every race.

Tyson Gay should be stepping into the starring role two months from now in Beijing as the reigning world champion in the 100- and 200-meter races. He should be the face of Team USA, a gold-medal favorite in events that are usually among the highest profile at the Olympics.

Instead, he is paying for the sins of his predecessors. Gay might set a world record at the Reebok Grand Prix this weekend at Randall’s Island. He might beat his top rival, Usain Bolt of Jamaica, in their first-ever meeting in the 100. But he can’t outrun the controversies in a sport that has absorbed more body blows from the steroids scandal than any other.

“If somebody is out there doubting what we’re doing, I have no control over that,” Gay said yesterday. “People are always going to have speculation when it comes to track and field, probably until track and field is over with.”

That speculation, however, has been replaced with convictions. Trevor Graham was the latest yesterday, found guilty in a San Francisco court of lying to federal investigators about his relationship with a steroids dealer.

Graham is a name not many outside of the track and field world will recognize, but he is the coach who ignited the Balco scandal in 2003 when he sent a syringe containing THG, a then-undetectable performance-enhancing drug, to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Now he could face prison time. Marion Jones, who won five medals in the 2000 Games in Sydney, is already behind bars after admitting she lied to investigators about using steroids.

Justin Gatlin, who won the 2004 gold medal in the 100, is appealing a four-year suspension for a positive test. Antonio Pettigrew, who won a relay gold medal in 2000, admitted during Graham’s trial that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his decorated career.

There are more examples, news flashes that have made track and field as irrelevant in this country as it’s ever been. NBC pushed to have the swimming and gymnastic finals take place in the morning in China so they could air live in prime time here. Track will get the tape-delay treatment.

No one knows which stories will touch us this August or which athletes will emerge as the stars. It could be Gay, a humble champion who admits to severe jitters before even routine races. It could be Lauryn Williams, a bubbly sprinter with a made-for-TV smile.

But less than a month before the Olympic trials begin, the focus in track remains on Graham and Gatlin. The current generation has paid the price. Nobody expects the young stars in baseball to prove their innocence because Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens cheated their way to records.

The asterisk in track and field hovers over everyone. It is no longer enough for them to just insist they are clean — Marion Jones once used a full page in her book to profess, in capital letters, “I am against performance enhancing drugs. I have never taken them and I never will.”

Those are the lies that dog runners like Gay and Williams, who were just beginning their career when Jones’ pursuit of five gold medals made her the most prominent American athlete in Sydney. Both runners are participating in “Project Believe,” a stringent testing program designed to restore fans’ confidence that our athletes are clean.

They were tested a half dozen times during a two-week period in March, with six vials of blood taken each time. Since then, they’ve been tested twice, including once without notice. The United States Olympic Committee is turning them into lab rats, hoping to restore the credibility it lost for failing to effectively police its athletes.

“I feel like it’s part of our responsibility to clean it up and change the way people view track and field,” Williams said. “We have to go out there every day and show our great clean performances, that’s the way we’re going to bring interest back to this sport.”

The trouble is this: We have become so jaded as a nation that we even doubt the tests. The dopers are always ahead of the scientists trying to stop them. No matter how many vials these well-meaning athletes give, the questions are always there. It’s not their fault, but it’s reality.

Gay can’t control what people think. He can only train and run, and hope if a medal is dangling around his neck in August, that we see him as a great champion and not a potential cheater. No, being the fastest man in the world isn’t nearly as cool as it used to be.