Track and Field

Doping issues, missing stars cloud World Track and Field Championships

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The World Track and Field Championships are often considered more exciting to track nuts than the Olympics. They’re nine days where running, jumping and throwing are alone front and center, but the normal competitive storylines are shadowed by shame this year.

The doping issue is back in track and field, as if it ever left. The last two months produced a slew of drug-testing headlines, conjuring the frenzy of the BALCO scandal of the early- to mid-2000s.

It blew up on a Sunday morning in July, when it was revealed U.S. sprint champion Tyson Gay told The Associated Press in a teary telephone interview that he had been notified he failed a drug test in May.

Many in the track community were surprised and disappointed. Even once-every-four-years track fans surely rolled eyes. Here we go again. (It didn’t help that Gay’s admission came during the middle of the Tour de France, and cycling’s doping problems are second to none.)

A third, ominous reaction came from a few track insiders. This is only the beginning.

World Track and Field Championships broadcast schedule

That same afternoon, more reported failed drug tests, this time out of the sprinting hotbed of Jamaica. Asafa Powell, the world’s fastest man before Usain Bolt came along, and Sherone Simpson, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist in the women’s 100 meters, tested positive for a banned stimulant at their national championships the month before. This came a month after Jamaica’s most decorated active sprinter, Veronica Campbell-Brown, failed a test.

The World Championships begin Saturday in Moscow. The usual pre-meet questions from reporters — How’s the season going? What’s the motivation a year after the Olympics? — are coupled with the cloud of doping. Can record performances be trusted? Does track and field have a black eye?

The man who carries the sport, Usain Bolt, has said “it’s going to set us back a bit,” and that he’s now competing not just for himself but also to “help people forget what has happened.” Bolt runs 100-meter heats Saturday and the semifinals and finals Sunday. Of course, he’s not the only disappointed champion.

“It sucks for the sport,” Olympic decathlon gold medalist Ashton Eaton said. “It really hurts it.”

Eaton said he gets his track and field news like many fans, by going online to the various track-specific websites.

“I read the articles, you know,” he said when asked about his reaction to Gay and Powell’s positives. “Oh really, that happened? Come on. … I was really, really surprised.”

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Should he have been? Track’s history is littered with cheating, from Ben Johnson to Marion Jones, runners and throwers, Americans and Europeans.

“It doesn’t matter who it is, you’re always disappointed when it’s a positive test,” said Olympic and world 200-meter champion Allyson Felix, who entered the sport at the tail end of Jones’ career. “I love track and field and have a passion for it. Seeing it in a negative light, it’s really sad and frustrating. That was my initial feeling. On the other side, I was happy that the drug testing is working. It’s doing it’s job. That was kind of the only positive thing to take from this.”

Felix eyes 200 in Moscow, 400 later

Awareness is another takeaway. Gay said, “I basically put my trust in someone and I was let down.” A trainer for Powell and Simpson was blamed, though that’s turned into a back-and-forth argument.

“I think athletes always have to watch what they’re consuming because at end of the day they’re accountable for what they put in their body, even if they trust someone,” said Aries Merritt, the world record holder and Olympic champion in the 110-meter hurdles. “You have to be held accountable. It’s difficult to say that it’s someone (else’s) fault.”

Nowhere have performance-enhancing drugs been more widespread (that we know of) than in Turkey, where more than 30 athletes were recently banned, including teenagers. British marathon legend Paula Radcliffe likened it to child abuse.

Nick Symmonds, the outspoken U.S. 800-meter runner, is glad no stars from his event have been caught. But he knows the reality, that you can’t be sure all of your competitors are clean.

Symmonds said he would be “devastated” if a rival in the 800 tested positive.

“The system in place is catching cheats,” Symmonds said, “but it doesn’t do a good enough job of catching all the cheaters out there. It’s a cat and mouse game.”

There is no easy solution to clean up the sport. Track and field’s international governing body, the IAAF, wants to increase bans for first-time serious doping offenses from two years to four years. Basically, if you get caught, you must miss an Olympics.

The number of athletes missing from the World Championships is startling. The doping-related absences of Gay and Campbell-Brown are compounded by an out-of-control list of injuries — Jessica Ennis-HillYohan BlakeDavid Rudisha and others. Name the 10 most recognizable track and field athletes in the world, and it’s likely at least six or seven aren’t going to be suiting up at Luzhniki Stadium.

The two days before the start of competition saw the U.S. champion in the women’s 1,500, already in Moscow, withdraw with an injury. So, too, did the bronze medalist in the event at the Olympics, joining the gold and silver medalist on the sideline.

No event is safe. Two Russian Olympic race walking champions reportedly pulled out Friday.

“The more it’s getting closer to competition, the more I’m not really surprised,” Eaton said. “My coach has been saying people after the Olympic year, they’re drained, they’re hurt. My training this year, as it’s going, I’m more tired, I’m getting more dings. That motivation is hard.”

If there’s a silver lining, and track and field could use any life preserver these days, it’s that medals will still be awarded. Through the gloom, the sport must go on.

“There are others who are stepping up to the plate,” Merritt said. “It’s giving the youth the opportunity to shine as well.”

IAAF moves forward with 4-year doping bans plan

Details of NBC Olympics’ Facebook, Instagram content for Rio

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NBC Olympics, Facebook and Instagram will team up to provide video highlights and interviews on social media daily during the Rio Olympics.

An on-site “Social Command Center” in Rio will capture Facebook Live content, including interviews with athletes and NBC Olympics commentators.

A daily two-minute recap video will be produced for Facebook, while Instagram will have a daily slow-motion video around an inspiring moment.

Instagram will also feature NBC Olympics commentators and athletes on its own account, @instagram, along with highlights of NBC videos through its Search & Explore video channels.

More on the NBC Olympics, Facebook and Instagram partnerships is here.

MORE: Complete U.S. Olympic team roster

Russia names flag bearer for Rio Olympic Opening Ceremony

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 08:  Sergey Tetyukhin #8 of Russia celebrates a point in the second set against Poland during the Men's Volleyball quarterfinals on Day 12 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Earls Court on August 8, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Russia’s depleted Olympic team named its flag bearer for the Rio Games Opening Ceremony, giving the honor to volleyball player Sergei Tetyukhin, who’s set to make his sixth Olympic appearance at 40 years old.

The announcement came via the Instagram page for Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, who has become somewhat of a spokesperson for the Russian team amidst the country’s doping scandal. Isinbayeva will not compete in Rio since her nation’s track and field team is banned, but she spoke to Russia’s athletes during a ceremony Wednesday.

“Today, as never before, we need to stay united and become a family,” Tetyukhin said before the athletes departed for Rio on Thursday.

Russia’s flag bearer was set to be announced Wednesday, according to Russian news agency TASS, but Isinbayeva said in her Instagram post (according to Google translate), “Flag bearer at the Olympics in Rio have already been defined, it is a great athlete, Olympic champion, Sergey Tetyukhin volleyball. Yesterday at a reception at the President he acted with dignity and promised to fight for the victory in Rio.”

The Russian men’s volleyball team has won a medal at the past four Olympics, but Tetyukhin’s time with the team began at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Russia placed fourth there, then took silver in 2000, bronze in 2004 and 2008, and gold in 2012. Tetyukhin was Russia’s third-leading scorer in London.

The team will be an outside medal contender in Rio. After winning the FIVB World League in 2013, the Russians have placed no better than fifth since. They finished fifth at the 2014 World Championship, fourth at the 2015 World Cup, and sixth at the 2015 European Championship.

Tennis star Maria Sharapova was Russia’s flag bearer for the London Olympic Opening Ceremony, but she will miss the Rio Games while serving a drug suspension.

MORE: Number of Russian athletes banned from Olympics reaches 105