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Scandals haven't scared off sponsors
- 'Taint on stars have made sport cleaner'

New York: The head of USA Track and Field (USATF) thinks interest in athletics among sponsors and fans is strong despite recent doping scandals, which actually might have helped by leading to increased anti-doping efforts.

'I still can't say that we have a sport that is 100 per cent clean. I would be naive to say that. But I feel more confident than I would have been previously,' Craig Masback said Monday in a conference call with reporters.

'The resolve of the sport to deal with this issue is stronger than ever.'

Masback said that 85 per cent of the sponsors he's spoken to over the past two years wanted to talk about drugs in his sport and the Olympics.

'For some, it may permanently colour the view, but for others, many have found it a very reassuring conversation,' he said. 'We have had individual donors to the USA Track and Field foundation and other sponsors, who, rather than holding the drug situation against us, have told us they are interested in us because of our strong stance.'

He said athletics' non-Olympic ratings rose on US television last year, and that attendance was higher at US meets other than the Olympic trials, where there were about eight to ten per cent fewer fans than in 2000.

'People are watching. I can't imagine it's because of the drug scandal. I would guess that it's in spite of that,' Masback said.

The investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, or BALCO, and the discovery of the designer steroid THG led to the suspensions of several athletes, such as Michelle Collins and Kelli White, and accusations against others, including Marion Jones.

Some good came of it all, though, according to Masback.

'It was a strong slap in the face to the sport. We believed, and I think it was factual, that we had tried harder and done more than virtually everyone else to try to address the role of drugs in sport. It wasn't enough,' he said.

'Balco changed forever our view that we're doing enough or that we were enacting a plan that was accurate. Whatever we were doing wasn't enough.'

Meanwhile, Masback said that financial concerns that shed some doubt on whether the 98th edition of the Millrose Games would take place next month have been resolved.

The February 4 indoor meet at New York's Madison Square Garden is the second leg in the 2005 Visa Championship Series, the US Federation's five-event indoor winter circuit.

'I'm highly confident there's more-than-adequate financing to hold the meet, from what I know,' Masback said, adding that USATF 'agreed to act as a holding agent or escrow agent for paying the athletes.'

Among the participants will be Olympic gold medallist hurdler and 2004 Jesse Owens Award winner Joanna Hayes, two-time Olympic bronze medallist hurdler Melissa Morrison, and pole vaulters Toby Stevenson and Derek Miles.

Stevenson won a silver medal at the Athens Games, and Miles was a US indoor champion.

'I believe in a level playing field, and I believe in not cheating. In terms of the pole vault, you can cheat, and I'll still beat you,' Stevenson said. 'We will survive... And I want to bring (athletics) back into the mainstream.'

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