Will we ever be able to just enjoy track again?

EUGENE, Ore. -- The 100-meter gold medalist from the Athens Olympics, Justin Gatlin, is not here at the U.S. Olympic trials, his court appeals finally exhausted after testing positive for performance enhancers. Even so, he is in a better situation than the golden girl from the Sydney Olympics -- Marion Jones is sitting in jail.

But so what?

Hundreds of other aspiring Olympians are here at Hayward Field, competing in one of sports' hallowed grounds, for the chance to represent their country this summer in Beijing. Among them is Brad Walker, who set an American record in the pole vault in May at the Prefontaine Classic, clearing 19 feet, 7-¾ inches. He is a favorite to win the gold medal in Beijing, and cleared 18 feet, 4-½ inches during Friday's qualifying round.

Overcoming track's tattered reputation is another matter for these athletes, after the steroid and performance-enhancing scandals ripped through their sport.

"It's frustrating just because it gives our sport a bad name," Walker said. "It's out there. It's a personal choice and there a lot of people I believe who make the wrong choice and give us a bad name. I can't control it. It's a moral decision that they choose to make. All I can do is stick to my morals and what I believe in. And a clean sport is the only way to do it, and that's what we're here trying to do."

I feel for the athletes. I know, or at least suspect, that some are taking banned substances. And I trust that many are not. But, juiced or not, they're all coated by the same brush. At a recent Olympic media summit in Chicago, track and field athletes spent as much time answering questions about steroids as they did about their goals.

"It puts a cloud over the entire sport because of the amount of coverage given to drug use," sprinter Terrence Trammell said. "There are many aspects to track and field and tens of thousands of track and field athletes who don't use drugs."

"Of course it is a hindrance," decathlete Brian Clay said. "And quite frankly, it sucks."

One of the reasons track athletes get caught more frequently is because they are tested more often and more effectively than their counterparts in the major professional sports. In addition to the random and mandatory urine tests they routinely face, athletes are subject to random blood testing here -- the first time blood tests have been part of the trials. According to information provided to athletes on the U.S. Track and Field Web site, athletes might have four samples of blood -- totaling about a tablespoon -- taken by testers for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

"I hope they take it from my left arm," shot putter Reese Hoffa said after advancing to Saturday's final with a toss of 68 feet, 10-½ inches with his powerful right arm.

On a sublime evening with temperatures in the high 70s -- "I'm from Ohio, so this was wonderful, no humidity," said heptathlete Hyleas Fountain -- and the setting sun gradually adding brilliant oranges and reds to a Dodgers-blue sky, Friday's announced crowd at Hayward Field for the first day of the trials was 20,964. That's not only more than the Pittsburgh Pirates drew for their game on Friday night, it's about twice the facility's normal capacity. And there was only one final run on the day's schedule.

"The atmosphere here in Eugene is phenomenal," Hoffa said. "It's the overall general knowledge that every person here has. They know what a big throw is supposed to look like. And when we hit a big throw, they go absolutely crazy for you. And when you have a subpar throw, you don't get much. In some ways, it's a tough crowd because you have to do well to really get them excited about an event. But, luckily, we have some of the greatest throwers in the world here in the U.S., so they're always excited."

With much on the line, the crowd saw joy and heartache here on Friday. Fountain broke Jackie Joyner-Kersee's American and Olympic trials record in the 100-meter portion of the heptathlon, and Katie McGregor just missed the Olympic team when she finished fourth in the only final of the night, the women's 10,000.

McGregor finished fourth in the 2004 trials and missed the Olympics that year, too. Asked what her career plans are, the 30-year-old said, "I don't know. I'm going to crawl in a hole for awhile and then come back out and decide.

"In 2004, I felt sorry for myself and cried a lot. This time, I'm not going to do that. I was just younger then. I'm older now and I think I have a better perspective on it. I would love to have 'Olympian' next to my name because that's what a lot of people validate your career on, but I'm going to be proud of myself when I'm done in my sport no matter what I've done."

Some athletes will do anything to have that coveted term "Olympian" attached to their name. Others will not. And that's just to get to the Olympics, let alone win a medal. So who do you trust when testing doesn't catch all the cheaters? You can make up your own mind, but I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt. Innocent until proven guilty, after all.

Sure, that sounds naïve -- good lord, Bulgaria just pulled its weightlifting team out of the Olympics after 11 lifters, including three women, tested positive for a banned steroid -- but to do otherwise is to never be thrilled by a performance, to never let yourself be inspired by athletes running until they collapse to the track at the finish, whether they won or lost, because they gave it everything they had.

What's the point of even watching otherwise?

In Chicago, Hoffa said if track and field athletes want to "stop being portrayed as dirty, we as athletes have to stop doing the things that make us look dirty."

He reiterated that point on Friday. "[Steroid questions are] part of the sport," he said, "but hopefully we'll get to a point where we no longer have to answer that question."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.