Can hope keep US track alive?

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.

Merritt, 23 and a double gold-medalist in Beijing, said he inadvertently ingested a banned substance by using an over-the-counter product without reading the label. In a statement, Merritt asked forgiveness “for making a foolish, immature and egotistical mistake.” And while he immediately accepted the provisional two-year ban from competition, which would put him back on the track in time for the 2012 Olympic season, he said that “any penalty that I may receive for my action will not overshadow the embarrassment and humiliation that I feel inside.”

Through the years accidental ingestion of banned substances contained in over-the-counter products has been a frequent defense for the sport’s scoundrel. But there is some reason to believe that Merritt’s may actually have merit. The Chicago Tribune reported that Merritt was apparently using a male-enhancement product called ExtenZe, a revelation that suggests there will indeed be punishments beyond any racing ban. The product contains a banned substance, DHEA, which, while in a certain class of anabolic steroids, is not regarded as particularly useful in boosting performance, at least on the track.

Credit USA Track & Field CEO Doug Logan for ignoring the traditional path of “wait-and-see” as he greeted the news with unmitigated dismay. He pronounced himself “disgusted” by an episode that “brings shame to [Merritt] and his teammates.” In a prepared statement, Logan said: “Thanks to his selfish actions, he has done damage to our efforts to fight the plague of performance-enhancing drugs in our sport.” And he noted that Merritt had not only put his career “under a cloud,” but had “made himself the object of jokes.”

The word “joke” certainly resonates because track and field, which has produced as many American Olympic heroes and legends as any sport, has become something of a joke too. The perception in this country is that the sport has been thoroughly dirty for years and that, much as in baseball, the governing bodies did little to combat performance-enhancing drugs and, indeed, were more involved in cover-ups. The perception throughout the world is that there is an epidemic of cheating in the sport and the United States, for all its public sanctimony on the issue, has been at its epicenter.

Logan came to USA Track just two years ago with hopes of fighting the good fight and reversing those perceptions. The Merritt case makes that task all the more difficult. Moreover, it takes one of America’s rising stars out of the game for two years. The anti-doping forces in sport can certainly point to its successes and claim that there is more vigilant and successful enforcement. But more effective policing isn’t quite the same as good news for the sport of track and field.

And that’s why reporters — to a man and woman — have pretty much the same reaction to Bolt’s every star turn. In the first breath, it’s always “wow!” And then quickly follows, “I just hope he’s clean.” Hope in track and field hasn’t been a big winner for years. And Merritt’s actions — regardless of whether they stem from sheer stupidity, callous indifference or cynical cheating — don’t do anything to help keep hope alive.