U.S. track and field trials showcase a 'clean' sport

Instead of suspensions and drug scandals, the focus is shifting to the competition.

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Hyleas Fountain runs through the triple jump pit in training for the heptathlon at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Oregon.

EUGENE, Ore. - For some, such as Allyson Felix, the U.S. Olympic track and field trials are all about finishing in the top three in a given event to secure a spot on the team that will go to Beijing.

For others, such as Tyson Gay, the two-week meet that begins today is about winning, a chance to establish - or reestablish - supremacy and confidence before the Summer Games.

And for many, the trials and the Olympics themselves are all part of the process of rehabilitating a sport that has been devastated in recent years by a series of drug scandals and suspensions.

"This is the cleanest track and field has been for a very long time. It's very exciting. It's definitely a level playing field, and I feel that the winners will be true champions and the ones that have worked the hardest and are definitely clean. And I think that the fans will start to feel that," 400-meter favorite Sanya Richards said yesterday.

"They'll start to feel that we compete from our hearts and we've worked hard and we enjoy what we do - and I think that will make a big difference moving forward to the Beijing Games."

A few hours after she spoke, there was a collective sigh of relief when reigning 100-meter Olympic champion Justin Gatlin's bid to have a doping suspension set aside so he could run in the trials was turned down in federal court.

Instead of the specter of drugs, the focus can be on athletes such as Felix (2004 Olympic silver medalist in the 200; 2007 world champion in three events); Gay (100 and 200 world champion); Richards (Olympic relay gold medalist); and Jeremy Wariner (Olympic and world champion in the 400).

Felix said yesterday she hoped to run in four events in Beijing in August: the 100, the 200, the 400 relay, and the 1,600 relay.

First things first, though. Unlike some countries, where an Olympic roster might be chosen behind closed doors - or basically preordained because there isn't a plethora of top athletes - the U.S. squad is formed during the trials, making for intense competition.

Some pretty big names have failed to qualify in the past because of the rigid system. Perhaps the most infamous example is decathlete Dan O'Brien: In 1992, he and Dave Johnson were the focus of a shoe company's "Dan vs. Dave" marketing campaign, but O'Brien no-heighted in the pole vault and did not make the American team for the Barcelona Olympics.

Most athletes and coaches agree the format can be unforgiving - and that it also is the way to go.

"Let me ask you a question: Who has the greatest track and field team in the world? Well, I think that's a little bit of the credit to the system that we have," U.S. Olympic men's track coach Bubba Thornton said. "That system validates the greatness of this team each time it rolls around."

So Felix could wind up being the face of the U.S. squad. Or, if she has a bad couple of days, she could theoretically not make it to China at all.

It's part of the juggling act that sort of requires competitors to be really good at the trials - but not too good.

"I feel like I'm really where I need to be. I'm not at my peak. I feel like that's going to come in Beijing," Felix said. "But I feel like I'm at the point where I'm able to make the team, hopefully."

Gay won't be satisfied with simply making the team, even though four years ago he was eliminated in the 100 semifinals at the U.S. trials.

Asked yesterday what his goals are this time around, Gay began his response by saying, "Honestly?"

He paused for a moment, then continued: "Honestly, I really want to come away with two victories, in the 100 and 200."