Another wave of young talent has swept in to help wash away the steroid stains in U.S. track and field.

The youngsters, as yet untainted by the ugly underbelly of the sport, head to next week’s national championships in Carson, Calif., welcoming the attention and confident they can compete with the old-timers.

After the first kid corps salvaged the U.S. track reputation at the Athens Olympics, an old-timer could be anyone over 23.

“It’s unfortunate what happened to the people before us,” 20-year-old sprinter Wallace Spearmon said.

“But most of us are pretty young and haven’t really been involved with all the scandals or anything else.

“It’s a great responsibility of carrying the torch in track and field, and most of us look forward to that.”

Spearmon and 400-meter speedster Darold Williamson spoke to reporters on a conference call Thursday. Craig Masback, executive director of USA Track and Field, sat in on the call, eager to shift attention to the performances and personalities of the sport’s new stars.

“We’ve just had, in some views, the greatest NCAAs ever in terms of performances, in terms of great athletes demonstrating their abilities under tremendous pressure,” Masback said.

Spearmon, a sophomore at Arkansas, won the 200 in a world-leading 19.91 seconds at the NCAA championships last week, then turned pro and signed with Nike.

Williamson, a Baylor senior, won the 400 in 44.27, also the fastest in the world this year.

Former Olympian Michael Conley, director of men’s elite programs for USATF, said the young athletes who competed in Athens, and the ones who followed with standout performances this year, make up the best group of U.S. sprinters in the sport’s history.

“Every so often you have a year or a time period where phenomenal athletes appear in every sport,” Conley said.

“I think that’s happening right now in track and field. Right now, it’s our time.”

There are many other examples:

-LaShawn Merritt, who turns 19 on June 27, left East Carolina in the middle of his freshman year to run for money. Only Williamson and Olympic gold medalist Jeremy Wariner have run faster than Merritt’s 44.66 in the 400.

-Kerron Clement, 19, broke Michael Johnson’s decade-old world indoor 400 record at the NCAA championships in March and won the NCAA 400 hurdles for Florida last week in a world-leading 47.56.

-Marshevet Hooker, a 20-year-old Texas sophomore, won the NCAA’s women’s 100, was second in the long jump and anchored the winning 400-meter relay team.

-Walter Dix, a 19-year-old freshman at Florida State, has the third-fastest American time in the 100 at 10.06.

-Xavier Carter, a 19-year-old LSU freshman, has the world’s fourth-fastest 200 this year at 20.02.

When the U.S. championships begin next Thursday, there will be a few notable holdovers from the sport’s previous generation. Maurice Greene is still running strong a month shy of his 31st birthday. Allen Johnson, 34, remains the man to beat in the 110 hurdles.

But those scarred by scandal are fading.

Tim Montgomery, the world 100-meter record holder before 22-year-old Jamaican Asafa Powell broke it Tuesday, has run poorly and is awaiting a decision from the international Court of Arbitration for Sport on his appeal of a proposed lifetime ban for using performance enhancing drugs.

Montgomery’s girlfriend, Marion Jones, the sport’s one-time shining star, now 29, has had a difficult season. Nine U.S. sprinters have better 100 times than her best of 11.28. Jones, who steadfastly denies she ever has used performance-enhancing drugs, has been shunned by several European meet promoters who believe she is tainted.

Kelli White, banned for two years and stripped of her world 100 and 200 titles, has admitted steroid use and has become an outspoken advocate for tougher regulations.

The list goes on, so no wonder the youngsters are receiving a hero’s welcome by the beleaguered USATF.

In Athens, the 20-year-old Wariner led a U.S. sweep in the 400. Justin Gatlin, then 22, won the 100. Allyson Felix, at 18 the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic track team, won a silver medal in the 200. Lauryn Williams, then 20, took silver in the women’s 100.

Williamson, Wariner’s close friend and Baylor teammate, anchored the gold medal 1,600-meter relay team, then returned to Waco for a spectacular senior season while Wariner turned pro after his sophomore year.

No event exhibits the young U.S. speed better than the men’s 400, where Americans have five of the world’s six fastest runners. Their ages are 22, 21, 18, 23 and 26.

“I guess we all exploded this year,” Williamson said.

AP-ES-06-16-05 1910EDT

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