Core Olympic sport has global reach
Posted: Sunday August 1, 2004 9:18PM; Updated: Sunday August 1, 2004 9:18PM
LONDON, Aug 2 (Reuters) -- Look through the leading names at the Athens Olympics and you get a clear idea of the global sweep of athletics, the Games's primary sport.
Kenenisa Bekele, latest and potentially greatest distance runner from Africa's oldest independent nation Ethiopia, has set world records in the five and 10,000 metres.
Cubans have made the early pace in two of the women's strength events where they have supplanted the eastern Europeans. Osleidys Menendez holds the five leading marks in the javelin, Yipsi Moreno the top two in the hammer.
Russian Denis Nizhegorodov is the new world record holder for the men's 50 kms walk. Russia, one of the traditional powers of race walking along with Mexico, Spain and Italy, also dominates the 20 kms event.
A Caribbean resurgence in men's sprinting is exemplified by Jamaican Asafa Powell, first person under 10 seconds for the 100 metres this year, and his 17-year-old compatriot Usain Bolt, the first man to duck under 20 seconds for the 200.
Two of the brighter gold medal prospects hail from Sweden -- the bubbly heptathlete Carolina Kluft and Monaco-based triple jumper Christian Olsson.
Then there are the Americans, who continue to dominate the medals table despite the lack of interest in their sport in the United States outside Olympic years.
Only soccer commands such a spread of talent throughout the world as athletics, reflecting the appeal of a sport based on the fundamental pursuits of running, throwing and jumping.
Yet despite five outdoor world records already this year in Olympic events the headlines have been dominated by doping, the greatest threat facing sport in general and athletics in particular.
The fortuitous discovery of the designer steroid THG (tetrahydrogestrinone) last year led to a raid on the BALCO laboratory in California and a federal jury investigation. Britain's European 100 champion Dwain Chambers was hit by a two-year ban following a positive THG test.
Then came the major breakthrough. Double world sprint champion Kelli White, faced with incontrovertible evidence of cheating, admitted she had been taking prohibited steroids, the blood boosting erythropoietin (EPO) as well as modafinil.
The 27-year-old American was the first athlete to get a two-year ban for the new offence of providing a "non-analytical positive" i.e. evidence of drug use other than a positive urine sample.
Marion Jones, a triple champion in Sydney four years ago, is under investigation and her partner Tim Montgomery, the world 100 metres record holder, has received a letter from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency alleging doping violations.
Montgomery failed to qualify for Athens and Jones, who won the 100-200 double in Sydney, has qualified for the long jump only.
Far from being depressed by the loss of major figures in the sport, the mood in the world governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), is upbeat.
Some big names may be missing, officials say, but the sport will survive. Times may be slower but the winners will be true champions. What is more important is to catch the cheats.
Athens will have a special appeal for athletes with even the vaguest knowledge of their sport's history.
The first champion at the opening ancient Olympics in Olympia in 776 B.C. was Corobeus, who won a race covering the length of the stadium later measured at 192.27 metres.
American James Connolly was the first Olympic champion of the modern era, winning the triple jump at the 1896 Athens Games.
The ancient roots of the Games will be showcased ahead of the main athletics schedule from August 20-29.
Both shot put competitions will be staged in Olympia on August 18. The marathons will follow the original 1896 course from the village of Marathon to the Panathinaiko Stadium.
Fittingly the Games will end with the men's marathon, won by Greek Spiridon Louis at the first of the modern Olympics.
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