Doping clouds hover over the sport

Contemporary athletics looks more vulnerable to doping charges than ever before in history.

K. P. MOHAN

Olympic and World champion, Maria Mutola of Mozambique should be the No. 1 choice once again over her pet distance of 800 metres. — Pic. AP-

FOUR years ago, the central theme of the Olympic track and field programme in Sydney was the `go-for-five' golden dream of Marion Jones. She was the sport's icon; she was a champion even before she had won an Olympic gold. Her demeanour was pleasing and she had an attractive smile. Her ready wit and repartee made good copy for the horde of journalists who followed her everywhere.

Today, Jones is no longer looking the `superwoman' she was in Sydney. And today doubts are being expressed about her performance in the last Olympics that fetched her three gold and two bronze medals. How times change! When your former husband hurls doping charges, even if the news is through `leaks' of investigators' reports, people take note; people start believing in things they didn't want to in the first place.

Vulnerable to charges

Contemporary athletics looks more vulnerable to doping charges than ever before in history. Almost every record-breaking feat is being viewed with suspicion. "Are there clean athletes still around?" is the question.

"The sport was the dirtiest when nobody was talking about it. Now that everybody is talking about doping, athletics is cleaner than it's ever been," says Olympic gold medallist and four-time world champion hurdler Allen Johnson.

But the figures, coming from the U.S. alone are startling. The BALCO investigations and the subsequent charges against some of the top-ranked athletes of the world, including world record holder Tim Montgomery and double World champion Kelli White (already under a two-year suspension), put the sport, especially in the U.S., under a cloud.

If as Allen Johnson says that the sport has become cleaner than ever before, that would be an encouraging development. But many doubt it.

If we leave the topic of doping aside, there is plenty more to talk about athletics in the Olympics run-up. For, there are a large number of new faces that are ready to make a mark at the highest level. At the same time, there are not many firm favourites around. Not even a Hicham El Guerrouj can be considered as invincible. He was one such personality last time, but suffered a shock defeat in the 1500m against Kenyan Noah Ngeny. The Kenyan has faded away since while El Guerrouj has been beaten, after nearly four years of an unbeaten run, by a relatively unknown Bahrainian, of Moroccan origin, Rachid Ramzi.

If there is an overwhelming favourite in this Olympics it should be Kenenisa Bekele in the 10,000 metres. The Ethiopian has been in such great form this season that there looks no one around who can even meaningfully challenge him. Haile Gebrselassie, who won a titanic duel with Kenyan Paul Tergat, down the finishing straight last time, is surely not the same distance king that we have known him to be. Bekele has taken over and the younger Ethiopian should stay there. The main point of interest could be whether Bekele can wrest a distance double.

An openness

In pole vault, the clash between Yelena Isinbayeva (in pix) and Svetlana Feofanova, the two Russians, with American Stacy Dragila, should be engrossing. — Pic. AP-

By and large there is an openness about so many events that picking the favourites might turn out to be a hazardous task. Maurice Greene has emerged as one of the top contenders all over again. He was one in Sydney and duly won the short dash. After that there has been a slump till the beginning of this season when he came back splendidly. He won the U.S. trials and should be looking forward to defending his title.

Greene could face a strong challenge from world champion Kim Collins of St. Kitts and Nevis, Jamaican Asafa Powell, team-mates Shawn Crawford and Justin Gatlin, and Portugal's Nigeria-born Francis Obikwelu, who beat him in Paris.

Obikwelu will have to tackle the muscular Konstantinos Kenteris in the 200 metres. The Greek, defending Olympic champion, had skipped the last World championships and had hardly competed anywhere on the circuit, adding a touch of mystery about his training methods. He is a celebrity already at home and will be hard to beat in front of home fans.

Old rivalries

The 400 metres will see two fresh faces, American Jeremy Wariner and Grenada's Alleyene Francique. The 800 metres will have some old rivalries hotting up, with world record holder Wilson Kipketer back in action after a lay-off and Kenyan William Bungei and Russian Yuriy Borzakovskiy in sparkling form.

El Guerrouj has had problems with his health in the run-up, even raising doubts about his participation. The greatest 1500m runner of our times is yet to win an Olympic gold. If he is fit, he should start the favourite. Frenchman Mehdi Baala and Kenyan Bernard Lagat should be stalking the Moroccan, apart from Rachid Ramzi, the new sensation in Bahrain colours.

Eliud Kipchoge had prevailed in the 5000 metres in the last World championships against two tough competitors, El Guerrouj and Bekele. The 20-year-old Kenyan is the favourite again, but Bekele cannot be ruled out. And there could be a challenge from any of the other Ethiopians, Sileshi Sihine and Gebre-egziabher Gebremariam. Need we look beyond Bekele in the 10,000 metres? It will be a fight among the Ethiopians as it was in Paris last year.

Keen battle

One of the keenest battles being looked forward to is the clash between Allen Johnson and Chinese Liu Xiang in the 110m hurdles. The American had prevailed over team-mate Terrence Trammell and Liu Xiang at the Paris Worlds. Johnson has barely managed to come through the U.S. trials, but was in good nick immediately after that. Liu Xiang has also been at his peak. The two other contenders could be Duane Ross of the U.S. and Stanislavs Olijars of Latvia. Dominican Republic's Felix Sanchez should be the odds on favourite in the 400 metres hurdles.

American Dwight Phillips in long jump and Sweden's Christian Olsson in triple look good enough to live up to their stature while it could be a toss-up in the throws, especially in shot put. The best shot putter this season, American Christian Cantwell, the World indoor champion, failed to progress from the U.S. trials. Two other Americans, Adam Nelson and John Godina will thus be the main contenders.

Robert Fazekas of Hungary and Virgilijus Alekna of Lithuania should renew their struggle for discus supremacy while Koji Murofushi, the Japanese gold hope, will have to contend with Ivan Tikhon of Belarus in hammer.

And when it comes to javelin, can Jan Zelezny be not there? The 38-year-old Czech is more than a metre behind the season leader Alexander Ivanov, but that does not make him a lesser adversary than he ever was. Zelezny will be gunning for his fourth straight Olympic gold, in his fifth appearance at the Games. If he wins again, he will join Americans Al Oerter (discus) and Carl Lewis (long jump) as quadruple Olympic champions in athletics.

Barren look

One of the keenest battles being looked forward to is the one between American Allen Johnson (right) and Chinese Liu Xiang in the 110m hurdles. — Pic. AFP-

Without Marion Jones, the sprints will look barren. Jones couldn't qualify from the U.S. trials in the 100m and pulled out from the 200m, concentrating just in the long jump. There will be no Kelli White either, serving a ban as she is. Americans LaTasha Colander and Torri Edwards, the latter if she gets cleared of a doping charge, Greek Ekaterina Thanou or Frenchwoman Christine Arron could be the beneficiaries.

One of the key contests at Athens would be in the women's 400 metres, where Tonique Williams-Darling of the Bahamas will cross swords with Ana Guevara of Mexico in a repeat of their clash in Rome. Then, Williams-Darling had won, ending a 28-race winning streak for the world champion.

Another long winning streak, stretching up to 36 races, was broken at Lausanne when Maria Mutola of Mozambique was beaten over her pet distance of 800 metres by Russian Svetlana Cherkasova. Are there chinks in the Mutola armour? Or was it just a rare defeat on a rare `off day'? Mutola should be No. 1 choice once again with Slovenia's Jolanda Ceplak being her strongest adversary.

Sureya Ayehan was beaten at the Paris Worlds in the 1500m by Russian Tatyana Tomashova. The Turk has her task cut out again, with another Russian, Olga Yegorova also likely to be in the fray.

The distance events should bring to the fore the Ethiopians. But one of them, Elvan Abeleygesse will be in Turkish colours this time. Abeleygesse clocked a world record for the 5000m at Bergen in June and should fancy her chances better than the `true' Ethiopians, Tirunesh Dibaba, Ejegayehu Dibaba and Sentayehu Ejigu.

Berhane Adere will surely remember Sun Yingjie from Paris. The Ethiopian will have to tackle one of her country's legends before she plans to counter the Chinese move. The late inclusion of Derartu Tulu in the Ethiopian squad has given her the chance to defend her 10,000m crown. She will be competing in her fourth Olympics. She had won the gold in 1992 as well. Paula Radcliffe will not be seen on the track. The Briton should be everyone's favourite for the marathon title, though.

Hurdles will be interesting

The 20-year-old Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge, who had prevailed in the 5000 metres in the last World championships against two tough competitors, Hicham El Guerrouj and Kenenisa Bekele, will be the favourite again. -- Pic. REUTERS-

The hurdles look set to provide the fireworks. Gail Devers, in her fifth Olympics, and looking for the 100m hurdles gold that she has been missing rather unluckily at the Games, will be up against Canadian world champion Perdita Felicien. Devers has the pedigree; Felicien has youth.

There could be a world record in the 400m hurdles. The top three from the U.S. trials, Sheena Johnson, Brenda Taylor and Lashinda Demus, along with Australian Jana Pittman and world record holder Yuliya Pechonkina make it a most competitive field.

All looked keyed up during the run-up and as though to indicate the kind of timings that could come. Johnson clocked 52.95 while winning the U.S. trials.

Twenty-two year-old Russian Yelena Slesarenko is the woman to beat in high jump. She has cleared 2.04m this season, with world champion Hestrie Cloete of South Africa just a centimetre behind. Veteran Inga Babakova of Ukraine is also very much in contention.

World records have come regularly in pole vault. The clash between Yelena Isinbayeva and Svetlana Feofanova, the two Russians, with American Stacy Dragila should be engrossing.

Marion Jones and the two Russians, Tatyana Lebedeva and Tatyana Kotova should call the shots in long jump with Anju George providing the Indian challenge. Lebedeva should also be the favourite in triple jump.

The Bylorussians, Ukrainians, Russians, Cubans and the Greeks should share the spoils in throws while Swede Carolina Kluft starts the overwhelming favourite to win the heptathlon.