News & Observer | | Sprint kingdom in ruins

Published: Aug 20, 2006 12:00 AM
Modified: Aug 20, 2006 02:35 AM

Sprint kingdom in ruins

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RALEIGH - The track where they trained is in ruins. The oval looks as if some Greek god, angered by what they did to the ancient Olympic sport of sprinting, reached down and clawed away the rubber surface, the lanes, the starting and finish lines. What's left is a rough circle of white stone and sandy dirt.

It's a coincidence that N.C. State has torn up its track now to make way for a new one. But the image of destruction fits the fate of the professional runners who trained there before being pushed off by the university in 2005.

It was at State's Paul Derr track that Marion Jones prepared for the effort that would win her a record five Olympic medals at Sydney in 2000. It was there that Tim Montgomery honed the technique the would make him, briefly, the fastest human in history. And it was there that Justin Gatlin trained before winning the 100-meter Olympic gold medal in Athens in 2004. All of it was under the direction of a common coach, Trevor Graham, who made the track home base for his training group, Sprint Capitol USA.

Now Jones, long under a cloud of suspicion, has been hit by a lightning bolt. The woman who has vehemently denied using performance-enhancing drugs tested positive after she won the 100-meter title at the U.S. track and field championships in June. The test found traces of erythropoietin, also known as EPO, an endurance booster.

Jones joins Gatlin -- a leader among athletes in advocating drug-free sport -- who tested positive for testosterone in April. Jones awaits the results of a test on her backup urine sample. Gatlin awaits a charge -- perhaps as early as this week -- from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Montgomery, Jones' former boyfriend and father of her child, was banned in December 2005. Evidence in the BALCO investigation showed him to be a doping project of BALCO founder Victor Conte.

In 2003, Graham fueled the BALCO probe by turning in a syringe containing an undetectable designer steroid. Three years later, the coach has been banned from U.S. Olympic Committee facilities and is under investigation by the USADA and the grand jury looking into BALCO.

Jones, a University of North Carolina alum who has a home near Chapel Hill, is the latest and the greatest to fall. For most who follow track and field, the only surprise about her positive test was that it was so long in coming. Despite her denials, the circumstantial evidence of her involvement in doping was overwhelming.

Jones' former husband, C.J. Hunter, was a former world champion shot putter who retired after testing positive in 2000. He told investigators he personally injected Jones with banned drugs. Conte said he watched her inject herself before the 2000 Olympics. She trained under Graham and the disgraced Canadian coach Charlie Francis. She was involved with Montgomery in 2002 when he set the 100-meter world record that was later erased as drug tainted.

Jones and Gatlin are not guilty yet, but the damage of suspicion and association is already done. The sport they sought to dominate, they helped to strip of credibility.

The runners who cheated and the coaches who knew or helped are to blame for track's fall, but the ultimate cause is money. Track, when it was an amateur sport, was pursued for the honor of winning. Now sponsorship, purses and bonuses for records mean that shaving hundredths of a second can bring hundreds of thousands of dollars. At her peak after the 2000 Olympics, Jones was estimated to be making $3 million a year.

The bodies that govern the sport internationally and in this country, the IAAF, the USOC and USA Track & Field, have been slow to adapt to policing the professional sport. Suspicion and allegations have circulated around Jones and Graham for years without the governing bodies taking action until recently. If there's any good news in the positive tests of Gatlin and Jones it is that a testing system so often fooled is now taking a serious toll.

At Paul Derr track, the last structure that remains is the concrete stands. The rows look like a remnant of an ancient Greek amphitheater. They face a stage where the famous went off to become notorious and the buildup to Olympic drama turned out to be a farce. From the joints in the empty concrete stands, weeds sprout. They are green as laurel, and money, too.

Columnist Ned Barnett can be reached at 829-4555 or

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