Her curly, 3-inch fingernails painted gold and her patter as breathless as her pace on the track, Gail Devers is headed for her fifth Olympics.
Once, in her early 20s, she was days away from having her feet amputated because of a rare disease affecting her immune system. Now Devers is 37, taking her last shot at the one gold that has eluded her in an event that has defined her career and, metaphorically, her life the hurdles.
''I'm ecstatic. I feel blessed,'' Devers said as the U.S. Olympic track and field trials ended on a 110-degree Sunday that was a fitting preview of the searing heat expected in Athens. ''I've been there, done that before, but each time is like a new experience for me. I try to look at it as if it's my first time going to the Olympic Games.''
Maybe this time she will clear those hurdles cleanly, run the perfect race she has pursued so long and missed heartbreakingly on the biggest occasions. Three world championships in the 100-meter hurdles tell her she can do it, no matter the date on her birth certificate.
''If you had asked me in 1988 how long I would be here, I would have told you I thought I was done in '88,'' she said. ''The key to it for me, for all these years, is still having fun. The challenge for me has been coaching myself. You have to look for challenges to keep yourself motivated.''
From Seoul to Barcelona to Atlanta, Sydney and now Athens, this devoutly religious daughter of a Baptist preacher has been a burst of sunshine in a sport too often consumed by the darkness of doping. She embraces the roles of ambassador of track and big sister to the budding young stars who surround her on the U.S. team.
By chance, a doping case might give Devers the opportunity to race again in the 100 sprint, which she won in 1992 and '96. She finished fourth in the trials behind Torri Edwards, who faces a two-year ban if found guilty of using a banned stimulant.
Edwards takes her case to an arbitration panel Monday but the odds of her winning are poor. She may very well have taken the stimulant inadvertently, as she says, as an additive in a glucose mixture her doctor gave her in Martinique in April.
But the bottom line, as the World Anti-Doping Agency keeps telling athletes, is they are responsible for anything found in their body.
If Devers is the beneficiary of Edwards' blunder and chooses to run in the 100, she would have to compete five days in a row. That could compromise her chances to win, finally, in the 100 hurdles.
''I've never made a hasty decision,'' Devers said. ''I'm not going to start.''
She said she will do what she always does when she has to make a big decision: pray.
If Devers passes on the 100, it would open up a spot in the race for Marion Jones, the defending Olympic champion who finished fifth in the trials.
That would be one more twist in the never-ending doping stories of the games, because Jones is under scrutiny by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency because of her links to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, accused dopester and boyfriend Tim Montgomery and former husband C.J. Hunter, who was banned for using a steroid.
These are grim days in the sport. Fairness is a slippery commodity and athletes with integrity, like Devers, are too few.
Track and field's governing body recommended Sunday that the U.S. 1,600 relay team, led by Michael Johnson, be stripped of its gold medal from the Sydney Olympics as part of Jerome Young's doping case.
The International Olympic Committee is expected to endorse the recommendation. USA Track & Field said it ''regrets'' the decision and will try to fight it.
The recommendation came 2 1/2 weeks after the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled Young, the 400 world champion who ran in the relay's opening and semifinal rounds, should be stripped of his gold because of a positive test for the steroid nandrolone on June 26, 1999.
Young, who has denied taking a prohibited substance, was exonerated by a USATF doping appeals board on July 10, 2000.
If the whole U.S. 1,600 relay team is punished, the IOC ought to start looking deeper into Olympic history and correct more blatant injustices. Open up the whole rotten Pandora's box.
Go back to 1976 and give American swimmer Shirley Babashoff the golds she was denied when she finished behind East Germans pumped up on steroids. Take a look at the East German marathoner who came out of nowhere to beat Frank Shorter. Examine the medical records and interview the East German women with bulging muscles and husky voices who won golds in 1988.
When the Berlin Wall fell, the East German sports secrets started leaking out. Manfred Hoppner, the deputy director of East Germany's sports medicine machine, revealed documents that detailed the country's cheating. In 2000, Lothar Kipke, the chief doctor of the East German Swimming Federation from 1975 to 1985, was convicted of causing bodily harm to 58 swimmers with various concoctions.
Does the IOC, so eager to come down hard on the U.S. team, have the guts to probe the seamy side of the Olympics over the past three decades?
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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