Shawn Crawford likes to be known as "the Cheetah man". Given the doping scandal which has clouded US sprinting in the run-up to the Athens Olympics, it is perhaps not the best nom de plume for the American who leads the world rankings at 100m and 200m - especially when the dark clouds have been drifting uncomfortably close to home for the 26-year-old Carolina man.
Crawford adopted the nickname in January last year when he raced a giraffe and a zebra in a "Man versus Beast" show on Fox Television. He beat the giraffe but then lost to the zebra. His muscles having tightened while being kept waiting around for 12 hours by the television crew at a track in University City, California, Crawford insists he could win a rematch. "Tell the zebra I coulda whopped him."
It is Crawford who is the two-legged opponent most likely to whop the home hero when the track-and-field programme gets under way in the Athens Olympics. Konstantinos Kenteris has won the last three major championship 200m competitions he has contested and is unbeaten since 2001. His best time this year, though, is 20.24sec. Crawford has run 19.88, 19.99 and 20.00. He is also the world's fastest man this year at 100m, having clocked a scorching 9.88 while beating Maurice Greene in the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene in June.
Crawford boasted a high-class pedigree prior to 2004 - with a world indoor 200m title and a World Championships 200m bronze medal from 2001 - but he has stepped up a significant gear since moving to Raleigh, North Carolina, last November to work with Trevor Graham, the sprint coach who has emerged as a pivotal figure in the US doping affair.
In a memo leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle two weeks ago, Graham admitted to Inland Revenue Service agents he was the "mystery" coach who launched the investiga-tion into the activities of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative by sending a syringe containing the as-yet unknown and undetectable "designer" steroid tetrahydrogestrinone to the US Anti-Doping Agency.
According to an interview given by C J Hunter to the IRS, and to testimony given by Tim Montgomery to a federal grand jury hearing, Graham was also responsible for supplying illegal performance-enhancing drugs to his training group, which formerly included both Jones and Montgomery - an accusation the Jamaican and his lawyer strenuously rebut.
The claims have coincided with the emergence of Crawford as the major player on the world sprinting stage, under the guidance of Graham. "All that was pre-Shawn Crawford," the sprinter's agent, Kimberley Trammell, insisted. "We don't want anything to do with what's happening right now. We don't want to get caught in this crazy media frenzy. Trevor prepares Shawn to train. Everything else is irrelevant."
Graham has been preparing Crawford for Athens away from the spotlight of the European circuit since the US trials. Crawford finished third in a close-run 100m final at the trials in Sacramento, recovering from a poor start to clock 9.93sec behind Maurice Greene (9.91) and Justin Gatlin (9.92), another member of Graham's Raleigh sprinting stable. He won the 200m final in 19.99, ahead of Gatlin (20.01) and Bernard Williams (20.30).
At the Weltklasse meeting in Zurich on Friday night Williams won the 200m in 20.13. When he is not working on the training track or racing in competition, the 26-year-old can be found performing in clubs as a stand-up comedian. His stage name is Hollywood Williams.
Crawford is a bit of a joker himself, as his race against the giraffe and the zebra might suggest. Back in 2002, he went to a party and came across a Phantom of the Opera mask. He took it to a Grand Prix meeting in Milan and decided to wear it while he was contesting the 200m, whipping it out of his bag and pulling it over his face at the last minute so the trackside judges would not spot it.
The trouble was it slipped down his face while he rounded the bend and he could not see where he was running. He veered out of his lane and got disqualified. It was an inadvertent transgression of the rulebooks rather than the act of a blatant cheater.
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