ATHENS, Greece - Track and field events at the Athens Olympics ended as they began, surrounded by history.
Eleven days after the competition opened 200 miles away in Ancient Olympia, it concluded in wild fashion Sunday night in the marble stadium in downtown Athens that hosted the 1896 Games, which marked the start of the modern Olympics.
Stefano Baldini of Italy won Sunday’s marathon and American Meb Keflezighi was a surprise silver medalist in a race disrupted by a defrocked Irish priest who jumped from the crowd and grabbed the leader with about three miles remaining. The attacked Brazilian runner finished, but had to settle for bronze and a special IOC sportsmanship award.
Though there were plenty of memorable performances this summer — Hicham El Guerrouj finally winning the 1,500 and then adding gold in the 5,000, Kelly Holmes sweeping the women’s middle-distance races, a record five men breaking 10 seconds in the 100 final — there was something missing.
Or a Michael Johnson shattering the 200 record in Atlanta in 1996. Or the Ben Johnson-Carl Lewis 100-meter showdown in 1988, won by the Canadian and then forfeited because of steroids.
In fact, the defining moment of these games may have come when Jones reached once, twice, three times with the baton, gasping “Wait, wait, hold up, hold up, stop, WAIT!”
But Lauryn Williams was too far gone, and so was a taken-for-granted gold medal. The botched handoff knocked the American women out of the 400-meter relay and sent Jones home empty-handed from these Olympics.
The Athens Games also failed to produce a truly memorable feel-good track and field story among Americans — though there were plenty of possibilities:
All left without a medal. Jones, under the cloud of a drug probe, was fifth in the long jump and then ran on the ill-fated relay. A bad calf felled Devers before her first hurdle. Pappas pulled out midway through his event with a foot injury.
And the drug stain that has enveloped track for the last year had its impact in Athens. Winners were questioned about drugs. Rumors spread as soon as an unexpected star emerged. And three champions — so far — have been stripped of gold medals because of doping.
Even some of the highlights this summer were tainted by drugs.
The shot put in Olympia was a classic — until the first woman to win gold at the hallowed site tested positive for steroids. The 1-2-3 sweep by U.S. men in the 200 was delayed four minutes by Greek fans chanting for fallen hero Kostas Kenteris, who withdrew from the games after skipping a drug test.
The Olympics may be over, but the doping news is not. The focus of the track world now moves back to drug labs, the federal courts and international arbitrators.
The controversial decision to let Jones run on the relay here, possibly putting any medal at risk if Jones later was found guilty of doping, became moot when the squad failed to finish.
Four other athletes charged by USADA with steroid use face lifetime bans if found guilty. All have appealed to arbitrators. One of them, Tim Montgomery, the father of Jones’ son, could lose his 100-meter world record.
And the continuing BALCO probe in federal court in San Francisco threatens to tarnish other athletes and coaches, especially if the case ever goes to trial.
Some inspiring performances on the Olympic Stadium track managed to put the drug issue in the shadows, at least for a few days.
With triple medalist Justin Gatlin leading the way, U.S. men dominated the sprints. They won all but one of the medals in the 100, 200 and 400. Including the relays, the sprints accounted for 10 of the 19 medals won by American men here — their best total since 1992.
“We were dominant,” said Shawn Crawford, who won gold in the 100 and silver on the 400 relay. “We were able to keep up with the trend to show the United States is still strong in the sprints.”
The women didn’t do as well. Their six medals were the lowest total since 1976. But 18-year-old Allyson Felix and 20-year-old Lauryn Williams, silver medalists in the 200 and 100, could presage a better showing in the future.
Felix, Williams, 22-year-old Gatlin — who put on quite a show in his debut Olympics, with gold in the 100, bronze in the 200 and silver as part of the 400-meter relay — and 20-year-old Jeremy Wariner could be just what the sport needs as it tries to recover from the steroid scandal and increase its U.S. visibility.
Wariner won the 400 and led the 1,600-meter relay to gold, showing signs of being Johnson’s successor. They even have the same coach, Clyde Hart of Baylor.
They are among a crop of talented youngsters who made auspicious Olympic showings in Athens.
The only two world records came from 21-year-old Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang and 22-year-old Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva. Isinbayeva broke the world record for the fourth time in two months, clearing 16 feet, 1¼ inches to become Olympic champion. Liu equaled the world mark of 12.91 seconds in the 110-meter hurdles, one of two Chinese golds at the track.
It was the first track gold medal for a male Chinese athlete, and there could be many more of those four years from now at the Beijing Olympics — when the youngsters who made their mark this summer will just be hitting their prime.
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