Fast Track America

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Shawn Crawford is weird. Two years ago, the U.S. Olympic sprinter wore a Phantom of the Opera mask during a race in Italy; Crawford was disqualified after the disguise blocked his sight, causing him to stray from his lane. In early 2003 he appeared on Fox's Man Vs. Beast TV special, losing to a zebra. And last week, after coming within .04 seconds of a 100-metres gold medal, and .01 seconds of a bronze, the 26-year-old Crawford didn't prostrate himself across the track in dismay. He didn't bury his face in his hands. He bounced off track into the press area, smiling like he had won an olive wreath. "I wasn't disappointed at all," he says. "People just don't understand, when I crossed the finish line, I saw that my training partner (100-m gold medalist Justin Gatlin) ran a personal best, and had almost set an Olympic record. I was so happy for him. I knew I just had to just worry about the 200." Crawford cruised to a gold in that race.

Welcome to the new track and field: humble, young, fast and — to this point at least — clean. The U.S. ran wild last week, taking home 24 track and field medals, 8 of them gold. The rest of the world had its moments: Jamaican sprinter Veronica Campbell won two sprint golds, again cementing the Caribbean's niche in sprinting. And Greece's Fani Halkia thrilled the host country by winning the 400-m hurdles. But the Americans swept both the men's 400- and 200-meters, finished one-two in the long jump and the pole-vault, and won gold in two relay races (the men's and women's 4X400).

Better yet, BALCO didn't make the trip to Greece. Sure, Marion Jones was in Athens, but she came home without a medal. And plenty of track athletes cheated — Greece's two big-name sprinters failed to show up for a drug test, while the Russian winner of the women's shot-put and the Hungarian gold medalist in the men's discus event lost their medals after drug tests. But the Americans escaped unscathed. "The sport was going to remain under a dark cloud until we did phenomenal things," says long-jump champ Dwight Phillips, who as a teenager broke both legs after backpedaling into a motorcycle. "Here, we are doing phenomenal things."

The U.S. hasn't only been phenomenal. Like Crawford, it's been unusual. At the start of the 200-m final Thursday night, the Greek crowd ignored the public address announcer's pleas for quiet, whistling and booing in support of Kostas Kederis, the 2000 Olympic champ from Greece who pulled out of the Games in a doping controversy. The race was delayed six minutes. Although the sprinters admitted the delay irked them, after Crawford, Bernard Williams and Gatlin placed 1-2-3, the American's didn't seek revenge on the jingoistic fans. There was no chest thumping, no taunting. Says Williams, who ran on the gold-medal 4X100 team in Sydney that embarrassed itself after an excessive celebration: "I've learned from my mistakes."

Another rare sight was Jeremy Wariner, track's Eminem, running away with two golds. He's the first white sprinter to represent the U.S. in the 400 meters since 1964. Unlike Marshall, Wariner is not angry about his background. And while Larry Bird says basketball needs more white superstars to broaden its appeal, Wariner won't carry that unseemly mantle for his sport. "I really don't listen to any of that racial stuff," says Wariner, 20, who just finished his sophomore year at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "If you've got speed, it really shouldn't matter." Unless a positive drug test arises, the track team not only has its speed, but also its credibility. Still, even the athletes understand the public trust is tenuous. "The faster I run," says Lauryn Williams, 20, who won two medals, a 100-m silver and 4X100 relay gold, at these Olympics, "the less people will believe I am clean." As the first entrant in the post-BALCO era, U.S. track and field shot off the starting blocks in Athens. Let's hope this isn't a false start.