Dear Boss:

Thanks. Thanks for nothing. You dispatched me across the country, to humidity-free California, to write about the world's greatest athletes leading up to Athens -- the whole Citius, Altius, Fortius thing. You boasted about all these wrenching human stories, of all these intriguing kids trying to make the U.S. Olympic team in track and field. And I ended up in the middle of the Cali Cartel, a virtual drug raid worthy of HBO's "The Wire."

It wasn't enough that six athletes charged with using banned steroids by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency competed as if they were on a perp walk all week, including some of the world's fastest humans. Now track's world governing body has busted sprinter Torri Edwards and Larry Wade, one of our great hurdlers, for positive drug tests earlier this year. Edwards tested positive for the banned stimulant nikethamide, Wade for something called norandrosterone, which sounds as if it could simultaneously cure a cold and kill a horse.

Friday night, Mickey Grimes, another member of the HSI track club, was busted for the same steroid. It's the trials, all right, replete with judge and jury. All six athletes facing drug bans coming in -- Tim Montgomery, twins Alvin and Calvin Harrison, Michelle Collins and Regina Jacobs, who voluntarily retired the other night -- have been eliminated from Olympic team contention. Grimes and Edwards are the lone remaining competitors with Olympic hopes among those facing drug allegations. Depending on whether you believe Barry Bonds hits home runs naturally, this makes the score here Witch Hunters 7, The Accused 2.

(We're taking resilient Marion Jones out of the equation, under investigation but not charged.)

Chryste Gaines, a virtual ball of muscle in lycra, was among the last of the Mohicans before she scratched in the 200 meters Friday night. She faces a possible lifetime ban.

The most depressing aspect of this week is a lot of clean, unjaded athletes who actually made the team on their talent and got really short shrift from all the cameras and microcassette recorders trained on the alleged bad guys. And at some point, you even felt for some of the accused. When they failed to qualify, the assumption was they had stopped taking steroids to avoid further embarrassment and detection.

We didn't leave any room for the notion of public pressure ruining their training and their times. Or grill the winners, some of whom had the same coaches as our deposed kings of the sport.

I could go on, boss, but at this point I want to thank you for the reprieve during those off days in track. You sent me to breezy, beautiful Long Beach to cover swimming for a few days, where I got to watch Michael Phelps talk about Mark Spitz and hold hands with Cindy Crawford for a watch company's corny promotion. I got to see Natalie Coughlin make the Olympics she barely missed four years ago.

There were not only six world records set at this meet, but also two historic firsts: Teri McKeever, Coughlin's coach at Cal, became the first woman to be named as a U.S. Olympic swimming coach. And Maritza Correia out of the University of Georgia was the first woman of African descent to make the woman's team.

What a scene when they introduced the U.S. swimming team to the crowd on Wednesday night. The pool was literally set on fire. Out of the starting blocks came fireworks, a cross-section of pop music pumped from the sound system, from Pink's "Let's Get This Party Started," to Kool & the Gang's "Celebration." Children slapped hands with their Speedo-wearing heroes as they made their way around the pool deck. Everyone was tan, lean, totally California.

It seemed more genuine than campy. Even the swimming lane judges, some pushing 80, were clapping to the music, sending their youthful hopes to Athens with applause.

After a 100-meter race in Long Beach, people in opposing lanes hug and congratulate their opponents. After a 100-meter race in Sacramento, the winner sticks his tongue out and everyone else runs to the trash receptacles to look for syringes. This is not some old-school, out-of-touch cultural lament, boss.

Track is more and more a constellation of supernovas, flaming out just as quickly as they burned and switch coaches. It is a collection of individuals who subvert their egos for a few moments to represent the United States, and even then they cannot help but taking their teammates down.

Swimming has this one-planet quality, a real family, protecting and hiding their dysfunctional souls for the common good of the sport. They practically have to invent controversy in swimming. The big dust-ups in Long Beach were whether somebody spat in Gary Hall Jr.'s lane or whether Phelps was taking someone's spot on a relay without actually swimming the race in the trials.

Now, I know swimming has gotten a pass in the Great Steroid War. Overlooked in the BALCO controversy is that former Olympic champion Amy Van Dyken testified before the same grand jury that our fallen track stars testified before. Nobody mentioned that Richard Quick, the head of the 2000 U.S. women's team, made allegations about drug use in his sport during the Sydney Games. He even wondered why one of his own swimmers, Dara Torres, who came out of retirement and swam incredible times, wasn't drug-tested leading up to the Olympics.

Gary Hall, Jr., and Jenny Thompson, who just qualified for their third and fourth Olympics, respectively, have talked openly about using multiple supplements to boost their ability to train for longer periods of time at higher intensity. Hall said he was helped immensely by something called a horse bar in 2000, a human-friendly version of a dietary supplement given to Fusaichi Pegasus prior to his Kentucky Derby win.

So, horse bars or not, it's naive to not at least suspect one or two drug cheats climbed out of that pool in Long Beach. But if all the cynicism is in Sacramento, all the sincerity was down in Long Beach. Yeah, boss, you did a noble thing by sending me there, and I cannot thank you enough. Unfortunately, you sent me back to track.