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Thursday, August 19, 2004
Updated: August 20, 7:45 AM ET
Sprint is chock full of potential heroes

By Eric Adelson
ESPN The Magazine

ATHENS, Greece -- It would be nice to believe.

It would be nice to see this week's 100-meter sprint as simply the best footrace of all time. We could witness four sub-10-second sprints for the first time ever. It would be nice to watch with raised eyebrows instead of furrowed ones. It would be nice to cheer without the worry that the results might not stand. It would be nice to rave instead of speculate, to use exclamation points instead of question marks.

It would be nice. But it will be impossible.

The BALCO investigation has changed everything about the way we watch track. Oh sure, USADA and WADA and yada yada yada did everything to ensure a clean, steroid-free games. Even President Bush got involved. But now every sprinter is suspect. Not just Marion Jones. Everyone. Even Greece's national hero, Kostis Kenteris, who has a ferry and a street named after him, is a rogue. We all desperately want to see Athens 2004 as an updated version of Chariots of Fire. Instead, it's an episode of 24. And there's no Jack Bauer to save us.

The sad part is, this 100-meter sprint is chock full of would-be heroes. Justin Gatlin is a thoughtful, soft-spoken Southerner who blushes as he admits to having designed prom dresses. He got his start in sprinting by hurdling fire hydrants. Gatlin calls the title of world's fastest man "a responsibility." What's not to like? What's not to trust?

Fellow American Shawn Crawford is the anti-Gatlin. But in a good way. He has a sense of humor and an innocuous swagger. He raced a giraffe and a zebra. He sprinted with a Phantom of the Opera mask. He got his start in sprinting by running from the belt in his tiny South Carolina hometown. He has gone from also-ran with an attitude problem and no coach to top gun with a shot at a double gold. What's not to like? What's not to trust?

Introducing Asafa Powell, of Jamaica. Long, lean, and bashful, Powell played soccer until a coach mentioned to him that he might have a future in sprinting. That was only three years ago. This year, he's beaten the Sydney gold medallist twice. Asked if he considers himself the favorite this week, Powell said, "Everyone's been saying that. I'm not going to object." What's not to like? What's not to trust?

And speaking of that reigning gold medallist, what's not to like or trust about Maurice Greene? He's owned the most exciting event in sports for the better part of a decade. And he's done it with an infectious voice and a race-ya mentality. Terrell Owens gets razzed for signing a football, but it's hard not to love Greene for putting his shoes out with a fire extinguisher.

Put the four together and you've got a rare gold-medal toss-up. Anybody can win. The U.S. trials featured the closest sprint ever, with Greene, Gatlin and Crawford within 0.02 seconds of each other. Greene won that contest, then lost twice to Powell. Greene has the experience, Gatlin has the flawless starts, Crawford has the flat-out speed, and Powell has the length at the finish line. Together, they are the perfect sprinter.

But in this new world, a sprinter's best qualities are his biggest targets. Did Crawford come from out of nowhere just because of his coach? Has Greene re-emerged as a star just because of his smarts and will? Is Powell so good so fast because he always had it in him? Is Gatlin's coach, Trevor Graham -- who is also Crawford's coach -- a brilliant racing mind or a villain who has somehow survived several of his athletes failing drug tests?

It would be nice not to have to ask these questions at all. Asked Thursday what can be done to convince track fans that the past is not a portend and the future is not in doubt, Crawford put aside his racer's bravado and said, "The only thing we can change is the moment we live in."

If only that were possible.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Email him at Eric.Adelson@espn3.com.