Best and worst of times for track and field

The best of times, the worst of times. Echoing Charles Dickens in "A Tale of Two Cities," USA track & field chief executive Craig Masback summoned an apt image to describe his team's display at last month's Paris World Championships.

The best of times, the worst of times. Echoing Charles Dickens in "A Tale of Two Cities," USA track & field chief executive Craig Masback summoned an apt image to describe his team's display at last month's Paris World Championships.

Hicham El Guerrouj is jubilant, after winning the gold in the men's 1500m at the World Championships in Paris. Twice Olympic 1,500 metres champion Seb Coe said, El Guerrouj was probably the best middle distance runner of all time. -- Pic. AP-

On the broader canvas the description could apply to the state of international athletics after the two-day world final and before the Athens Olympics.

Before Paris World Championships, International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) President Lamine Diack sounded a sombre note when he said athletics had no divine right to remain the central sport of the Games.

A key theme of the pre-championship IAAF congress was the need to promote the sport's champions at a time when television sports channels are saturated with tennis, golf and, above all, soccer.

Twice Olympic 1,500 metres champion Seb Coe, said Hicham El Guerrouj, was probably the best middle distance runner of all time. But added his children would not recognise the four times world 1,500 champion and world record holder.

El Guerrouj was at Monaco's Stade Louis II for the season-ending world athletics final but did not run because of a cold.

He still finished as men's overall champion through a complicated points system which highlighted one of the problems facing administrators striving to make the Grand Prix circuit and the Golden League series instantly accessible to casual observers of the sport, i.e. equating performances in different disciplines.

Mozambique's Maria Mutola smiles as she poses with a $1 million cheque, after winning the 800 metres in all six Golden League meetings in a row in 2003. No doubt, she is one of the top women athletes in the world circuit. -- Pic. AP-

Is South African high jumper Hestrie Cloete the best women athlete of the year? She successfully defended her world title and could break Stefka Kostadinova's 16-year-old world high jump record.

Cloete won the award by five points from Sweden's world heptathlon champion Carolina Kluft, who did not compete in Monaco after becoming only the third woman to score more than 7,000 points with an unforgettable two-day tour de force in Paris.

Then there is Britain's Paula Radcliffe, who shattered her world marathon record in London, missed the world championships because of injury and illness, before setting a world five km road best at the weekend.

And who could have done more than Maria Mutola, who won $1,000,000 after finishing first in the six Golden League 800 metres women's races?

Masback appropriated Dickens's opening paragraph in his epic tale of the French revolution to describe championships revived for the United States in Paris on the final day by three relay teams.

J. J. Johnson, anchorman on the severely weakened 4x100 squad, ran down Briton Dwain Chambers in the straight for the gold medal in one of the performances of the championships.

The crowds at the Stade de France turned up in large numbers and the atmosphere on the penultimate day when Christine Arron led their women's 4x100 team to victory over the United States and Eunice Barber won the long jump was spine-tingling.

When Kluft, ebullient, awesomely talented and patently in love with her sport, competed or when a succession of races were decided in last-gasp finishes on the line, track and field did seem the best of sports.

The worst of times for USA Track & Field and the international federation throughout the season was a series of drugs scandals which continue to erode the sport's credibility.

At the start of the year, triple Olympic champion Marion Jones and her partner, world 100 metres record holder Tim Montgomery attracted unwelcome publicity when they had a brief association with disgraced Canadian coach Charlie Francis.

Francis was banned for life by his national federation for his role in supplying drugs to Ben Johnson, who tested positive after winning the 1988 Seoul Olympic 100 final.

In Paris Kelli White, Jones's successor as the world's leading sprinter, tested positive for a stimulant and now seems certain to lose both her 100 and 200 gold medals.

Even the Kenyans, the most natural of runners, have been tarnished. Olympic bronze medallist Bernard Lagat pulled out of the 1,500 in Paris, ostensibly with a stomach complaint.

Subsequently it was revealed he had tested positive for the blood boosting drug EPO (erythropoietin).

"This is greed, nothing else," said former world steeplechase champion Moses Kiptanui. "They are spoiling the sport that we helped build over the years."

Now the world's elite turn their attention to Athens. El Guerrouj confirmed he would attempt the 1,500-5,000 double in Greece, although he has yet to win an Olympic gold over the shorter distance, his specialist event. He, at least, remains resolutely upbeat about his sport.

"I intend to run the double to promote the sport," he said. "This has been an absolutely great season, great for the sport, great for television audiences. The sport is growing all the time."