NEW YORK -- This is supposed to be track and field's glittering off-Broadway reopening. The assembled cast is headlined by Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, with supporting players named Mary Slaney, Michael Johnson and Leroy Burrell.
The track and field stage will be cluttered by a drug-related subplot, however, when the USA/Mobil Championships begin their four-day run today at refurbished Downing Stadium on Randalls Island.
Butch Reynolds, owner of the 400-meter world record and a silver medalist at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, received a brief reprieve Monday from a two-year steroids suspension and is expected to compete. At stake is a spot on the U.S. team that will race at the World Championships in Tokyo in August.
A U.S. Olympic Committee arbitrator paved the way for Reynolds' unusual one-race return. Reynolds was declared positive for nandrolone Aug. 12, 1990, in Monaco. But after hearing evidence from drug expert David Black that a false positive test was obtained, arbitrator Richard Gombert reinstated Reynolds. Reynolds still must still receive clearance from The Athletics Congress and the IAAF, the world track and field organizing body, to run again internationally.
"I know an arbitrator is allowing Butch to compete in this meet, but I don't know why," said Danny Everett, who finished third behind Reynolds in the 400 in the 1988 Olympics. "If we are going to have a testing procedure work, it has to be consistent. I think this is a bad precedent."
The Reynolds flap isn't likely to overshadow this event for long. This is the best cast of track athletes to run in the United States since the 1988 Olympic trials in Indianapolis. Top performances are expected. The only question is whether anyone will bother to attend the event on Randalls Island, a slice of land in the East River in the shadow of the Triboro Bridge. To boost attendance, organizers will distribute 10,000 tickets a day to schoolchildren.
"From what I've heard, most people around here don't even know where Randalls Island is," middle-distance runner PattiSue Plumer said. "You have to overcome that kind of thing."
There are several compelling plots to build interest for the event:
* Is this the beginning of the end of Lewis' reign as a dominant American sprinter? The two-time Olympic 100-meter gold medalist is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery and has FTC been surpassed by younger rivals. He will face Burrell in the 100 and then sit out the 200, which looms as a showdown between Burrell and Johnson. Lewis will compete in the long jump, where he retains a 10-year, 64-meet winning streak.
* Will a refocused Joyner-Kersee re-emerge as track and field's most dominant female? Battling age (29) and problems related to asthma, Joyner-Kersee remains nearly unbeatable in the heptathlon and long jump, but she is no longer as imposing. She piled up a world-record 7,291 points to win the 1988 Olympic pentathlon, but since then her top total is 6,783, at the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle.
* Can Slaney hold off the charge of Plumer in the women's 1,500 meters? When they last met at San Jose, Calif., May 26, they brushed one another in the pack before Slaney won in a 1991 world-leading mark of 4 minutes, 4.92 seconds to Plumer's career best of 4:05.04.
"I guess this time we'll have to wear headgear and elbow pads," Plumer said. "I respect Mary a lot. I'm glad she's back."
The usual stars aren't the only ones expected to dominate this meet. The decathlon is expected to produce a dramatic duel between defending champion Dave Johnson and Dan O'Brien.
Mike Buncic and defending champion Kamy Keshmiri have emerged as world leaders in the discus. Gold medalist Hollis Conway is favored to win in the high jump.
World indoor champion Diane Dixon leads the women's 400-meter field. The women's 10,000-meter race features world cross-country champion Lynn Jennings, U.S. record holder Francie Larrieu-Smith and defending champion Colette Murphy.