Archive for Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Wristen: Hoping idols of tomorrow keep it clean

August 6, 2008, 12:01 a.m.

Updated: August 12, 2008, 9:50 p.m.

The experts criticized Michael Johnson for his running style.

He runs too tall, they said. He should adopt a forward lean that supposedly was more efficient.

Johnson proved them all wrong, as you well know.

Running tall, with his chest puffed out, powerful and proud, Johnson scorched his way to gold-medal victories in the 200- and 400-meter dashes at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. His time of 19.32 seconds in the 200 obliterated the previous record of 19.66, which Johnson set at the Olympic Trials the same season.

Four years later he again won gold in the 400, and he replicated his feat from 1992 of claiming an Olympic title in the 1,600-meter relay. That makes five gold medals and places Johnson among the sport's most dominant performers of all-time.

His gold medal count was lowered back to four on Saturday when the International Olympic Committee stripped the medals from Johnson and 2000 relay teammates Antonio Pettigrew and twins Alvin and Calvin Harrison after Pettigrew confessed he used performance-enhancing drugs at the time.

Johnson said he felt "cheated, betrayed and let down" by Pettigrew. It's worth noting, however, that Calvin Harrison tested positive for a banned substance in 2003 and Alvin Harrison did the same in 2004. Both received suspensions for their violations. In addition, one of the team's alternates also tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

I raise this point not to put more smog over Beijing prior to the Games' Friday start, rather to suggest that the medal-stripping is something worth celebrating prior to the latest edition of the Olympics.

I was a high school sprinter in 1996 and remember watching awe-struck at Johnson ran that ridiculous 200. During a tour last summer of the Olympics Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, I watched a video of the race and still found it to be baffling.

The fact that Johnson is the only member of the gold-medal relay team from 2000 to not test positive for some sort of illegal substance is curious. As a sprinter who idolized Johnson back in the day, I hope we never hear of any sort of such indiscretions. The same goes for Kansas City, Kan., product Maurice Greene, the former world record holder in the 100-meter dash and the Olympic champion in the 100 and 400-meter relay at the 2000 Olympics, whose name surfaced in a steroids investigation in April against North Carolina-based Trevor Graham, the coach of many prominent track athletes but not Greene. The International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field's world governing body, threw its support behind Greene in dismissing those allegations.

During that museum tour in Switzerland, I viewed an exhibit that focused on steroid use in the Olympics. Among other things, it detailed the number of athletes that have been caught using performance-enhancing drugs at the Olympics since 1966 (24 were suspended at the Athens Olympics in 2004). It was a disappointing display only because it was necessary. After all, some of those numbers on the wall represented athletes that many of us grew up emulating. At the same time, it was refreshing to see that the Olympics weren't shying away from this disgraceful blemish on its historic resume.

As we count down these final few hours before the Olympics begin anew, I can't help but wonder how many world records will be set during the next few weeks - and how many of them will be legit. We've already seen a handful of athletes kicked off the U.S. team for doping violations, and with the most stringent testing in Olympic history about to be used, we certainly will hear about more violations as the games commence.

As a runner, my fastest days are behind me so I won't be viewing the games from the standpoint of an athlete who hopes to be the next Tyson Gay, Muna Lee, Dara Torres, Michael Phelps or Nastia Liukin, but I know many of the high school athletes that I report on will be. It's those young up-and-comers that I'll have in mind when a medal is won or a world record is set. I'll hope that the performances they witness are clean and honest; that they can believe the times clocked are legit and not tainted by illegal substances.

The young athletes of today deserve to have idols they can believe in just like I did with Michael Johnson, athletes whose greatest offenses aren't more complex than having a nontraditional running form.


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