American men have won the 400-meter hurdles at the past five Olympics. James Carter is the most likely candidate to keep that streak going.

The BALCO doping scandal threatens to obscure anything good about American track and field, to the detriment of veterans like Carter, an irrepressible native of Baltimore who overcame illness as a child and the lack of a track at Mervo High to finish fourth at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

Georgia Tech's Angelo Taylor won that Olympic final, in 47.50 seconds. The only American to approach that level of performance since has been Carter, who went 47.57 in August 2002. That's when Carter was second in a Grand Prix meet in Zurich, Switzerland, to Felix Sanchez, the only man who has consistently broken 48 seconds in recent years.

"Other than Sanchez, who's gone faster than me?" said Carter, who focuses on his own agenda. "I basically don't try to worry about him. I work hard, to stay in shape, and stay healthy."

Sanchez, a two-time world champion from the Dominican Republic, was Track & Field News' 2003 Man of the Year. Carter spent much of that campaign on the shelf, nursing a strained ligament in his lead leg, but he is quite enthusiastic about the start of this Olympic year.

On May 8, the day after he turned 26, Carter was second to Japan's Tamesue Dai at a Grand Prix meet in Osaka, Japan, but Carter's time of 48.99 was his fastest season opener.

"I was behind the eight ball, too, running in Lane 8," said Carter, who should be accorded more respect than that at an invitational. "I thought so, but they went off of what happened last year."

Carter came up lame a year ago, then somehow managed to finish fourth at the national championships. That place kept him out of the world championships, and he spent some of last season's down time studying the history of his event.

Anyone who has ever sprinted and then gone over a barrier knows of Edwin Moses, who won 107 finals from 1977 to 1987, but Carter is channeling the karma of Kevin Young, and not because he set a still-standing world record of 46.78 at the 1992 Olympics.

"That was Young's second Olympics," Carter said. "Four years earlier, he was fourth. That's where I finished in 2000."

That in itself was heady stuff for Carter, who was in the seventh grade when he had his thymus removed because of myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease. He went to Hampton University with no experience in the 400 hurdles, which didn't seem like a big deal, because Mervo didn't have a track.

Four years ago, Carter posed for photos at Mervo, where the grounds were being graded for a track. It has been built, but a lawsuit regarding that project means that the Mustangs still can't run there.

"I was in Baltimore last weekend," Carter said. "It's frustrating to see that the school has something, but that the kids still can't use it. I got out of Mervo in 1996. It's time that thing opened."

Maturity and weight training, incorporated into his regimen starting in 2001, have added 10 pounds to Carter since 2000. He has spent the past eight years at Hampton, where he's a volunteer assistant coach some springs. "I've found a comfort level here," Carter said. "If I get attention, I appreciate it. If I don't, that's OK, too."

Baltimore City was rich in talent eight years ago, when Carver had Bernard Williams (Carver), an Olympic gold medalist in the 400 relay. Both he and Carter have circled Aug. 26, when the finals of the 200 sprint and 400 hurdles will be conducted at the Olympics in Athens, Greece.

Both brought home an unflattering image from Sydney, where Williams was on a winning relay team that was reprimanded for an over-the-top celebration, and Carter was booed after taunting the men who trailed him in a semifinal.

"I'm out for gold," Carter said, "especially in a year when they're cracking down on drug usage. A lot of people are going to be mortal."

Olkowski comes on

Ryan Olkowski will be joining Carter at the U.S. Olympic trials in July in Sacramento, Calif.