EUGENE, Ore. -- Awash in late afternoon sunshine on the third day of summer, Carmelita Jeter exploded from a set of starting blocks Thursday and tore across 100 meters of orange running track. The race was a formality -- just the opening round of the USA Track and Field national championships in an event where Jeter is an overwhelming favorite to win on Friday night and continue on to the World Championships in late August in Daegu, South Korea. She will be among the favorites there, as well.
Her performance nonetheless was a thing of beauty, a display of controlled power with a touch of the athletic arrogance that defines every great sprinter. She was quickly in front of overmatched peers, compact and strong, and rolled through the line in 10.88 seconds, second-fastest among 16 semifinal qualifiers while barely trying. It didn't just look easy, it looked casual.
In the last three years, Jeter, 31, has become one of the fastest women in history. In the late summer of 2009, she ran 10.64 at a meet in Shanghai, China. Only Florence Griffith Joyner (the legendary Flo-Jo) has run faster. On June 4 of this year -- nearly two years later -- she ran 10.70 in the Prefontaine Classic here at Hayward Field. No fluke. Only Flo-Jo and the disgraced Marion Jones (this will be important) have run faster. "I feel good,'' she said Thursday. "I feel like I'm in good shape.'' Understatements. She is in sensational shape.
There might have been a time when Jeter would be famous in her own country. Or semi-famous, or periodically famous. She may yet achieve some sort of celebrity in the coming months. Those are factors relating to the reduced popularity of track and field in a sports-and-media landscape that is geometrically more crowded than when Wilma Rudolph was running. Or even when Flo-Jo was running. Put those issues aside.
Within the track world, there is another reason why Jeter is not, as I said to her Thursday after her race, "America's sprint sweetheart.'' She laughed at that. Not because it's funny, but because it's painful and true.
What Jeter has done since breaking through in 2007, when she lowered her personal best from a plodding 11.48 to 11.02, is run too fast. In the three years from 2006 to 2009, she lowered her best time in the 100 meters from that 11.48 to 10.64, a staggering drop of .84 seconds. She did this while aging from 26 to 29 years old and getting noticeably more muscular. And as her time at the Prefontaine meet verified, she has scarcely gotten slower since, while aging from 29 to 31. No woman in history has been faster older.
It is Jeter's misfortune to have done all this at a time when exceptional performances in track and field (and cycling and baseball and, to be honest, almost any other sport involving power, speed or endurance) are subject to deep suspicion that the person achieving them is using some type of performance-enhancing drugs that aren't being detected by drug-testing agencies.
Sadly, I am a card-carrying member of this Society of Doubters. As a journalist, I am routinely faced with writing about athletes who have done great things, only to find later that they have used PEDs. This has happened more than once, hence I feel obligated to infuse my writing in this area with a degree of skepticism. It doesn't feel good, but it's a necessary disclaimer. (Is Usain Bolt the exception? Maybe. Maybe not).
Back to Jeter. I say it's her misfortune to have come along in an age of drug doubts. It's only her misfortune if she's clean. If she's not clean, she deserves every bit of skepticism she's getting. But the problem is: We don't know. We only know she's run very fast (and says she's clean). How fast?
Let's pick an arbitrary time, but one that history would support as the line of demarcation between merely fast women and very fast women. (Suspiciously fast? OK, sure). I'm going with 10.80 seconds, a time that has been bettered by only 15 women in history, and seven of them did it just one time. By contrast, another 21 women have run times from 10.80-10.89. Among the women who never ran under 10.80: Olympic gold medalist Gail Devers, U.S. teammate Gwen Torrence, and East Germans Marita Koch and Marlies Gohr. So if you run under 10.80, you're running fast. (And thanks to the
Some facts about the sub-10.80 club of which Jeter is a member: Lu Xuemei of China (10.79 in 2004), Inger Miller (10.79 in 1999), Dawn Sowell (10.78 at altitude in 1989), Torri Edwards (10.78 in 2008) of the U.S., Ivet Lalova of Bulgaria (10.77 in 2004), Irina Privalova of Russia (10.77 in 1994) and Christine Arron of France (10.73 in 1998) did it just once. Merlene Ottey of Jamaica (now Slovenia) did it twice, and Kerron Stewart of Jamaica has done it twice and is still active. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price of Jamaica has done it three times and is very active. Evelyn Ashford of the U.S. did it three times, once at altitude. Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica has done it twice and is also still active.
Another fact: Of the 15 sub-10.80's, only two women -- Edwards (31) and Ottey (almost 30) were older than Jeter's 29 when they first broke 10.80 seconds. Getting faster with age is a red flag. It's not guilt, but it's worrisome.
In any case, Jeter has run faster than all of these women. She is one of only three women to have run under 10.70. It's not great company (appearances aside). At the top of the list of Flo-Jo, who in 1988 suddenly lowered her personal best -- at the age of 28 -- from 10.96 seconds to her ridiculous and probably wind-aided world record of 10.49 seconds at the Olympic Trials. The 10.61 she ran in the championship round of the Trials is probably the true world record. Flo-Jo not only made this incredible drop in '88, but never raced thereafter and while there was never a shred of physical evidence that she used steroids, her legacy will always carry the taint of mystery at the least and scandal at the worst. (But she was spectacular to watch).
The other woman under 10.70 is Jones, who ran 10.65 at altitude and 10.68 at sea level and then later admitted to ingesting, injecting or rubbing the entire pharmacy into her body. This is Jeter's company.
Hence, I came to stand with Jeter Thursday and asked her this awkward question: "Is it possible to run too fast?''
Jeter: "What do you mean by that question?''
"That people can run a certain time and be assumed clean and after that they will be suspected of doping.''
Jeter: "People are going to say what they want to say. I can't worry about that. I want to make the Olympic team.''
That's a fair response. In 2007, Jeter switched from her college coach to former world class sprint hurdler Larry Wade, who helped her drop into the 11-flat range. She wanted more, so she asked her agent, Chris Layne, to connect her with a Los Angeles-based sprint coach. Jeter says Layne hooked her up with John Smith.
Smith is a legendary sprint mentor. In 1992, he coached Kevin Young to a gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles in a world record 46.78 seconds that still stands. He coached Maurice Greene to a gold medal (2000) and a world record in the 100 meters and current NBC analyst Ato Boldon to a brilliant career and multiple Olympic medals.
There's no doubt Smith is a revolutionary sprint technician. (Former Smith sprinter Jon Drummond calls him 'The Godfather of the drive phase,'' referencing the early-race portion where sprinters drive low before rising to full height). "He's a technician and he's also got me into the weight room,'' says Jeter. "I'm bigger and stronger in the areas you need to be, in the thighs and butt.''
It's a lock any good sprinter would get better training with Smith. But even that part is tricky. Smith athletes Wade and Mickey Grimes both tested positive in 2004. Greene was connected in a
The reality is track can be an opera of simplicity. Run faster, throw further, jump higher. There's a blessed purity in that, but PEDs have complicated all of that. Not long after Jeter easily advanced, Justin Gatlin did likewise in the 100 meters. Gatlin is 29, an Olympic and World champion and one of the fastest men in history. He is also trying to make his first national team after serving a four-year suspension for steroid use. He was a ray of hope when he was running fast and now he is a reclamation project, still smiling but damaged goods forever. A walking, talking cautionary tale for all who follow the sport.
Fifty feet away, Jeter packed, slipped into her sweats and walked away to cool down, proud and fast on a beautiful night.