You wanted to believe her. She made you believe. She was good like that. Marion Jones, TIME cover girl, winner of five medals three gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and now an admitted steroid user, sat in a sweltering press tent at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Track and Field trials in Sacramento, and put on an Oscar-worthy show.
All week during those trials, she had refused to acknowledge the press, and thus her fans, that same adoring public that made her an Olympic icon. The BALCO investigation had uncovered evidence that Jones had used performance-enhancing drugs, and she refused to take the heat. Finally, after she pulled out of the 200-meter semifinals, citing fatigue, Queen Marion was holding court in the tent. Reporters dropped their coverage of the races, of those less famous athletes whose Olympic dreams were hanging in the balance, and sprinted to Jones like lap dogs. She smiled, charmed, even casually addressed a few of those reporters by their first name. She showed no signs that her steroid denials, which we now know were flat-out lies, were causing any stress. She reminded us that she never failed a drug test. “The athletes who have not tested positive have been dragged through the mud,” she said. I gave her the benefit of the doubt. I was not alone. “Frankly, I’m impressed,” wrote New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden the next day.
I was new to the track beat that summer, and quickly fell in love with the sport the relay strategies, the tactics of the 100-meter dash versus the distance races, the oddball field sports pole vault! Hammer-throw! I got to know Justin Gatlin at those trials, and smiled in disbelief when he won the 100-meter sprint in Athens. Just 22 years old, charismatic, and most importantly, clean. Or so I thought. Two years later, Gatlin was busted for doping, and he is now serving an eight-year ban. And Friday Jones pled guilty to lying to federal agents about her use of performance-enhancing drugs.
So forget about track and field. Jones and Gatlin have taken the sport down. Maybe we should have lost faith back in ’88, when Ben Johnson got stripped of his medal in Seoul. Think about it Johnson, Jones, Gatlin three Olympic champs, convicted cheaters. Compared to track and field, baseball’s steroid struggles seem bush league.
Leading up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, U.S.A. Track and Field will pump up the next generation of stars, and tell us how they’ll put all this sorry history behind us. Well, I heard that storyline back in 2004; how, with good conscience, can I buy it again The world’s two top sprinters, Tyson Gay of the United States and Asafa Powell, the 100-meter world record holder from Jamaica, have a nice little rivalry, and you’ll hear about it ad nauseam in the months before the ’08 games. But it’s hard for me to get too excited about it. Sure, Gay and Powell never failed drug tests, and no one has accused them of using steroids. But Marion Jones passed all those tests when she was using back in 2000, which makes testing seem like a joke. In today’s track world, as far as I’m concerned, you’re practically guilty until proven innocent, and really, how can you prove you’re innocent
I guess you could give Jones a smidgen of credit for finally coming clean. As Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees has proven, those who apologize for using steroids will eventually be forgiven. But even now, it seems, Jones is trying to have it both ways, resorting to the Barry Bonds defense that she didn’t know the flaxseed oil her coach was giving her was actually the steroid known as “the clear.” Jones is too smart for that, and given all her lies of the past, it’s not as if we have any reason to believe her.
So maybe she’ll set up another charm offensive, to tell us how she lied because she was scared, how in a way she’s a victim of track and field’s sordid culture of steroids and suspicion. Like all her performances, I’m sure it will be a doozy, but I, for one, will be skipping that one.