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Muna steps into Marion's shadowland

Youngster in the glare as crisis grows on US track

It is Friday night in the Stade de France, and deep in the bowels of the Parisian arena a young American athlete is blinking nervously in the glare of the international media spotlight.

Muna Lee is 22. She speaks in a halting southern drawl. She is clearly not as accustomed to such attention as another native of Little Rock, Arkansas: one William Jefferson Clinton.

It is her first time out of the States, she says, her first experience of international track-and-field competition. She has just won the women's 200m in the Gaz de France Golden League meeting. "I don't know how I did it," she says. "I just ran."

She ran so swiftly, in fact, she finished comfortably clear of Debbie Ferguson, the Bahamian who held off Marion Jones on the anchor leg of the 4 x 100m relay at the Sydney Olympics four years ago, and Muriel Hurtis, the reigning European 200m champion from France. She was roared home by a crowd of 63,581. "I just wish I could call home and tell somebody," she says. "I don't have a phone card or anything."

Lee, it transpires, has pitched up on the European circuit like some novice at a school sports meeting, having finished second in the US Olympic trials and booked her place in the starred-and-striped team for Athens. "I wish they had told me to bring some snacks," she says, ravenous after her evening's efforts (she had earlier placed seventh in the 100m), as though her mother might have packed her off to the big-league competitions with a lunch-box and flask tucked under her arm.

Then someone asks the question: "Did you hear about C J Hunter accusing Marion Jones of taking drugs?" Welcome to the big, bad world of track and field, Muna.

The wide-eyed, willowy slip of a sprinter does her best to address the burning issue. "To me, if she did do it, I figure it was in the past," Lee says. "She would have to get off of it to have a baby, or it would affect the baby.

"I figure she's clean now. But if she did take it, it's kind of messed up... I don't know. I don't have much of an opinion on it. I'm still running with them either way. I run just as fast, whether they're on it or not. So it really doesn't bother me." It is as healthy an opinion as you are likely to get from an American fresh on to the pre-Olympic European circuit in the wake of the US trials and the burgeoning tribulations of the doping scandal gnawing at the heart of US track and field.

It is difficult to imagine such a fresh-faced fledgling failing to get bothered to the point of despair if she digs beyond the bare-bone headlines - and reads of C J Hunter, Jones's former husband, claiming he injected her in the midriff with the "designer" steroid tetrahydrogestrinone, to help her win the Olympic 200m title that Lee will be chasing in Athens; and of Hunter reportedly telling investigators from the Internal Revenue Service that the Californian nutritionist Victor Conte warned him Jones could die of excessive insulin usage, allegedly saying: "Don't she know she could have a stroke if [it's] not taken the right way?" Even with the rider of Jones and her lawyer denying all accusations and accusing Hunter of lying, it should be said.

It was along the corridor, in the Stade de France press conference room, that the whole sordid, toxic affair started seeping out 13 months ago. News had been leaked at the World Championships held at the Paris track that Kelli White, the American winner of the 100m and 200m, had tested positive for a little-known stimulant called modafinil. White looked the assembled press corps in the eye and told them: "The mere fact of this allegation is personally harmful and hurtful. I have never taken any substance to enhance my performance. My doctor prescribed modafinil because I suffer from narcolepsy."

It subsequently emerged that the drug-testers were the people who had been caught napping. Files from the offices of Conte's Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative revealed that White had in fact been enhancing her performances with the use of a full set of pharmaceutical aids: a steroid (THG), a blood-booster (erythropoietin) and a stimulant (modafinil). She accepted a two-year ban, was stripped of her world titles, and agreed to help the US government and the US Anti-Doping Agency with their investigations into the alleged distribution of performance-enhancing drugs by Conte and his company.

Watching the bewildered Lee take her leave, it is a further sobering thought that she has followed in the footsteps of a trio of 200m runners who have got caught in the drug-testing net. The first three women in last year's World Championship final on the same track - White, Anastasiya Kapachinskaya of Russia and Torri Edwards, another American - have all since either confessed to using banned drugs or failed tests for them.

Edwards was one of three athletes whose positive tests were leaked during the course of the US trials. All three - Edwards, Larry Wade and Mickey Grimes - are members of the Hudson Smith International training group coached by John Smith in Los Angeles.

Maurice Greene, the highest-profile member of the stable, declined to stop and comment on the matter when his 30th-birthday celebrations fizzled out with a second-placed finish in the men's 100m earlier on Friday night.

Later, Allen Johnson, Edwards's partner, stops to give his views. He has just won the 110m hurdles. It is the second and last win by a US athlete on the 20-event programme. "You know what I think?" Johnson says, when asked about the unfavourable publicity. "I don't think it's fair. As you saw at the trials, there were a lot of great performances. I think that should be the focus. I think that far outweighs any negatives."

It happens to be an unfortunate choice of words. The one thing that US track and field could do with right now is negatives. The tally of positive drug tests is tarnishing the sport in America beyond recognition.