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.”

Eaton back as decathlon favorite after wedding

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

Marc Leishman will miss Olympics due to wife’s health, Zika

Marc Leishman
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Australian golfer Marc Leishman will miss the Rio Olympics due to his wife’s health.

“Many of you may know that last April my children and I almost lost my wife, Audrey, to toxic shock syndrome,” Leishman said in a statement. “Since then Audrey has been prone to infection and is far removed from 100 percent recovery of her immune system.

“We have consulted with Audrey’s physician and due to her ongoing recovery from toxic shock and potential risks associated with the transmission of the Zika virus, it was a difficult yet easy decision not to participate.

“I missed playing in the 2015 Masters tournament to be at her side when she was originally stricken and I cannot risk placing her health in jeopardy.

“The Masters and the Olympics are the two biggest tournaments to which a golfer can be invited; however, my family will always come before golf.”

Leishman, 32 with one PGA Tour win, joined the projected Olympic field when countryman Adam Scott said last month that he would skip Rio.

World No. 1 Jason Day is assured one of two Olympic spots for Australian men when the 60-man field is determined based on July 11 world rankings.

With No. 7 Scott and No. 35 Leishman out, the next-best Aussie is No. 63 Marcus Fraser.

Three more major champions — Vijay Singh, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel — also said in April they would not compete in Rio.

Golf returns to the Olympics for the first time since 1904.

MORE: Australia Olympic legend blasts Adam Scott

Rory McIlroy worried Olympic golf may be done after 2020

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Rory McIlroy believes golf may not remain in the Olympics after 2020 following a string of major champions announcing they will skip the sport’s return at the Rio Games.

“Because of how [Olympic golf is] being approached in golf circles … I’m not sure if we’re going to have another opportunity to win a gold medal after [Tokyo 2020],” McIlroy said ahead of the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday.

In 2009, the International Olympic Committee voted to re-add golf and rugby to the Olympic program for the 2016 Olympics, with a review in 2017 if they would remain for the 2020 Olympics.

In 2013, Tokyo was elected host city for the 2020 Olympics with a plan that includes golf.

Beyond 2020, golf does not yet have a place in the Olympics. Its chances for the 2024 Olympics could come into focus when that host city is chosen in September 2017.

McIlroy, ranked No. 3 in the world, has repeated he will play for Ireland in the first Olympic golf tournament since 1904 in Rio in August.

Fellow major champions Adam ScottLouis OosthuizenCharl Schwartzel and Vijay Singh said last month they will not play in the Rio Olympics.

MORE: Golf Channel’s Olympic broadcast schedule