The finish line is in limbo. It's a strange way to run a track meet, but it's not as if the people running the U.S. Olympic trials actually have a choice.
''The law of the United States is quite clear,'' USA Track and Field boss Craig Masback said the other day. ''It says unless someone has received a full due-process hearing and found to be ineligible, they must be allowed to compete.''
Is this a great country or what?
Among the 1,000 or so athletes scheduled to compete in Sacramento beginning Friday are six charged with doping offenses as a result of evidence gathered in the BALCO investigation. And so far, not one of them has had a hearing.
What that means in practical terms is this: Masback and anybody else trying to keep track of the U.S. Olympic roster is advised to do so in pencil and keep an eraser nearby.
Any or all of the so-called ''BALCO Six'' could win an event, then lose arbitration cases over the next month and be forced to give up a seat while sitting in the boarding lounge for the team plane to Athens.
And their ranks don't yet include Marion Jones, whose name keeps popping up in the investigation even though she hasn't been charged with anything worse than hanging around some very suspicious characters.
Even so, Masback also told reporters, ''I'm cautiously optimistic of having a strong Olympic team come out of these trials.''
Not to worry. The United States remains the track world's reigning superpower, even if Superman's cape is going to look a little tattered over the course of the trials.
The fates of world 100-meter record holder Tim Montgomery, sprinters Chryste Gaines and Michelle Collins, twins Alvin and Calvin Harrison and distance runner Regina Jacobs have yet to be determined both on the track and before arbitration panels.
But based on present form, Collins looks like the only certain qualifier. And if you hooked Masback up to a lie detector and asked him how many of the BALCO Six the U.S. team absolutely needs in Athens, he'd raise his free hand, pinch the thumb and forefinger together and make the sign for zero. And that is true as long as Jones remains a step ahead of investigators and her competition.
Not long after the BALCO scandal began worming its way through the track and field world, gold-medal sprinter Jon Drummond predicted the virus would cause plenty of panic but wind up claiming only a handful of athletes.
If that sounds like an epidemic, try naming an All-Star baseball team that you'd be willing to certify was free of any juiced performers.
''All these calls about sending a 'clean team' to Athens make it sound like that's going to be impossible,'' Drummond said. ''We go seven or eight deep in most events and the only thing that separates that talent on any given day is the blink of an eye.
''So let's wait until this BALCO thing plays out. Trust me, because I'm 35 and I've been around. We won't need to send a dirty team to compete.''
Try to keep that in mind as the trials unfold over the next few days. The athletes competing for places certainly will. They know that a breakthrough performance invites scrutiny every bit as much as a disappointing one.
Unfair as it seems, all of them will be competing while casting glances sideways and over their shoulders. They know better than anyone else who's using what, and all but the handful of cheaters in their ranks are willing to endure the suspicions. It's a tough atmosphere in which to select an Olympic team, but that's the only way it's going to happen.
Nobody captured the unsettling mood on the eve of the trials better than the San Jose Mercury News, which described it in a preview as something out of a ''Roadrunner cartoon'' with the BALCO Six playing the title role and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency cast as Wily E. Coyote.
Or, as shot-putter John Godina, one of the grand old men of the circuit and a longtime antidrug crusader, put it: ''There's never a bad time to catch a cheater.''
Masback had to be more circumspect, of course. But even though he can't be sure where the finish line is, he is eager to see how the tale turns out.
''You can't manage this issue. You can't make it go away. There's no turning back,'' he said. ''We've got to embrace this fight.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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