I'm old enough to remember when the U.S. Olympic track and field trials were grand and tense and the perfect lead-in to the Summer Olympics. And it's certainly possible Marion Jones, Maurice Greene and others will do things in Sacramento this weekend to give the event the sizzle it used to have, or at the very least reclaim it, however temporarily, from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and BALCO.
But as the competition begins, drugs are the No. 1 story in U.S. track and field. BALCO, USADA, performance enhancement, grand jury testimony, arbitration, lifetime bans are topics that dwarf split times and relays.
There may be more lawyers than sprinters competing in Sacramento. In short, it's a mess. And it turns people off at a time when track and field was already going the way of boxing in this country. No matter how fast Jones runs she won't outrun the discussion of drug suspicion, despite her direct and rather eloquent self-defense campaign. Before the trials begin they've been reduced if not flat-out tainted. It's certainly no way to stage your marquee event, one that used to be defined by the simple notion of the human drama of athletic competition. Once upon a time the track and field trials gave us the thrill of a Carl Lewis victory or the agony of a Dan O'Brien defeat.
As it stands now, the U.S. Olympic Committee is probably quite happy to have the swimming trials going on simultaneously, and in the same state. At least down in Long Beach, Calif., the talk is of actual performance. When Michael Phelps, who could arrive in Athens as the biggest star of the Olympics, said after his world-record opening swim, "It's a relief, I will say. The Olympic trials is probably more stressful than the Olympic Games itself," we can presume he wasn't talking about passing a drug test.
There are a lot of nice stories in swimming, quite a few of them of interest around Washington-Baltimore competitors, from Katie Hoff's qualifying for the team to Ed Moses trying to regain his 2000 Olympic form.
But the big deal in Long Beach is Phelps, the hard-to-read teenager from near Baltimore who in one breath blames the media for obsessing over his chase of Mark Spitz's incomparable seven gold medals, then in the next presumably approves when one of his sponsors, Speedo, offers $1 million if he matches Spitz. The Big Boys of sponsorship aren't paying for the promise of three gold medals; we saw Matt Biondi win five gold medals in Seoul in 1988 and some of the pool fools expressed disappointment with that.
Perhaps the very notion of sponsors and million-dollar payouts is also part of why the trials have had so little success wrestling the general sports fan's attention from Major League Baseball. In the 1960s, '70s and even in 1984, agony of defeat meant no consolation prize. The U.S. team had so many great track and field stars, especially the sprinters, that people who expected to medal in the Olympics were one so-so race from going home for the summer with nothing. Now? Regardless of the outcome, Tim Montgomery will do just fine. Turns out there's a whole lot less agony in defeat than there used to be, which reduces the tensions, which sends viewers looking elsewhere at times for their sporting drama.
Is the real drama surrounding Marion Jones whether she'll qualify for the Olympics or whether she'll be ratted out by Kelli White?
Of course, it's the drug stuff. Doping or the controversy over who is doping and who isn't and how it can be proven have completely stolen the joy from this summer, and depending on upcoming revelations could steal some joy permanently. You can't watch Barry Bonds without thinking about BALCO and whether Bonds is innocent or lying. No matter how the network partners try to play down the BALCO stuff during the weekend broadcasts from track and field, folks at home will carry their cynicism with them, even when they don't know exactly what or who to believe. Even the Hero of Summer, Lance Armstrong, finds himself dogged by an allegation of doping.
Top all of this off with the volatile state of the world, and people seem to be very slow about gearing up for Athens and anything related.
This isn't like 1992, when Butch Reynolds, the 400-meter record holder, was allowed to run in the trials in New Orleans by a Supreme Court ruling, made the team as an alternate, then was banned from competing in Barcelona by the international track and field federation.
A dozen years later, it's everywhere you turn. Competitors will have to come to the track with their trainer and a lawyer. Montgomery, Alvin Harrison, Michelle Collins and Chryste Gaines will all apparently compete, but all are under suspicion, and all are facing lifetime bans because of their testimony in the BALCO case. Perhaps Greta Van Susteren will do the color commentary on the broadcasts. The human drama of athletic competition has taken a back seat to the legal drama of courtroom maneuvering, and the early result is that the interest around this event ain't what it used to be, or what it should be.