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Can hope keep US track alive?

Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt buoys sport at Penn Relays, but steroid scandals drag it down.

Usain Bolt of Jamaica, left, celebrates with team mate Asafa Powell after winning the men's 4x100 metres relay final during the world athletics championships at the Olympic stadium in Berlin, Aug. 22, 2009. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

BOSTON — Track and field in the United States is currently in its off season, a period that generally extends almost exactly four years — currently from the final relay event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics until the first 100-meters heat is run at London 2012.

In recent years, about the only exception that can propel the sport into the headlines here is a doping scandal with big-name Olympians suspended, stripped of past medals and records and even, in the case of former golden girl Marion Jones, sent to prison. And while the sport remains popular in Europe and Asia, it can’t sustain true international prominence let alone rise to new heights without significant financial backing from the U.S. sports and media establishment.

But the Beijing Games produced a transcendent star in Usain Bolt, the lanky and luminescent 23-year-old Jamaican sprinter who won three gold medals — the 100/200 meters double and the 4x100 meters relay — while obliterating world records in all three events. And even in America Bolt can draw a crowd.

This past weekend in Philadelphia, with Bolt running just a single leg of a 4x100 relay, the venerable Penn Relays drew the biggest crowd — more than 54,000 people — in the 116-year history of the competition. Not since the late Bob Marley took that stage has a Jamaican inspired such an enthusiastic reception in this country. The New York Times reported that the start of Bolt’s relay was delayed a few minutes by the raucous cheering of the fans, with its enthusiastic chant of “Jamaica.”

Bolt didn’t disappoint, anchoring his Jamaican quartet to victory over two top American relay teams. Indeed Bolt delivered exactly what the crowd wanted to see: an eat-my-dust moment. He took the baton for the final leg, virtually even with American sprinter Ivory Williams, and, with a mind-boggling 8.79-second final leg, simply ran away from him. (Bolt’s world record for 100 meters is currently 9.58 seconds.) The effort was so other-worldly that Jamaica’s margin of victory was .43 seconds, which is essentially a country mile over that distance.

Bolt, his electrifying performance, the record crowd, all should have made for a banner week for the long-beleaguered American track establishment. But earlier last week, American track was hit by another major embarrassment. LaShawn Merritt, whose decisive victory over teammate and defending Olympic champion Jeremey Wariner at 400 meters was one of the American highlights in Beijing, tested positive — in three out-of-competition tests earlier this year — for an anabolic steroid.