At the pinnacle of her success, Olympic sprinter Marion Jones set records for female athletes, signed multimillion-dollar endorsement deals and adorned the covers of national magazines.
Vogue declared her “The New American Hero” in a cover story featuring Jones in a $2,000 designer dress.
But seven summers after her dominance of the Sydney Games, where she won a women’s record five medals -- three of them gold -- Jones has disappeared from track and field. Her days of competitive glory have given way to suspicions of performance-enhancing drug use.
And now comes word that she’s heavily in debt, fighting off court judgments and down to a bank account balance that could barely cover the tab for that Vogue designer dress.
According to recent court records, reviewed by The Times, Jones says that her millions of dollars are gone and that she has “total liquid assets throughout the world” of about $2,000.
Last year, she said, a bank foreclosed on her $2.5-million chateau-style “dream home” in an area of Chapel Hill, N.C., where Michael Jordan and Dean Smith were among her neighbors.
And this year, records show, Jones sold two other North Carolina houses, including one where her mother lived, raising “money to pay bills,” she said.
Jones conceded having no financial recovery plan but also said she wasn’t worried. “I pray that God will bless me and my needs will be taken care of,” she testified in an April deposition.
The supposedly dismal state of her financial health is described by Jones in a 168-page deposition, part of a breach-of-contract suit she filed in Dallas against veteran track coach Dan Pfaff.
Unfortunately for Jones, Pfaff countersued and won a judgment for about $240,000 in unpaid training fees and legal expenses.
“You made some good money. Where did that money go?” asked a skeptical Pfaff attorney, Eric Little.
“Who knows? I wish I knew. Bills, attorney bills, a lot of different things to maintain the lifestyle,” Jones said.
In fact, legal bills have been a growing burden on Jones’ finances. She has been involved in a rash of litigation since 2003, when she was linked to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) after a federal raid.
Jones has since retained attorneys for her BALCO grand jury testimony, for negotiations with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in her fight to avoid being banned from competition, for a defamation lawsuit she filed against BALCO founder Victor Conte, who accused her of taking performance-enhancing drugs, and for taking on Pfaff in her breach-of-contract suit.
That suit had the added side effect of exposing her financial problems to public view.
Exactly how much those legal bills have cost her is unknown. She did not respond to requests for comment from The Times. Neither did her personal attorney, Rich Nichols, or agent Charlie Wells.
Suspicions of drug use flared again last year when a Jones urine sample -- taken during the U.S. Track and Field Championships in June 2006 -- later tested positive for the performance-enhancing drug erythropoietin.
Upon receiving the news, Jones immediately quit a European track tour and returned to the U.S. Although she was cleared when a backup sample tested negative, she missed at least five major international meets -- forfeiting an estimated $300,000 in appearance and performance fees.
Jones became one of track’s first female millionaires during her prime, typically earning between $70,000 and $80,000 a race, plus at least another $1 million from race bonuses and endorsement deals.
In 2000-01, she competed in 21 international events, including the Olympics and U.S. Olympic trials, according to statistics of IAAF, track’s world governing body.
Since those heady days, however, Jones’ career has been dogged by outbreaks of bad publicity. Besides the dark cloud of doping suspicions, she has had boyfriends, agents and coaches land in trouble -- including charges of fraud and lying to federal agents.
“The media wanted to make her the golden girl,” said Ned Barnett, former sports columnist for the News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., but “she had these suspicious boyfriends in her life and a real paranoid streak. She didn’t [project] the image people wanted.”
Attorneys for Pfaff contend that the highly regarded trainer was hired by Jones to improve her reputation. “I’ve always thought she was using coach Pfaff ... as a beard,” Edmund “Skip” Davis, one of the lawyers, said in a recent telephone interview.
In August 2003, Jones had just been linked to BALCO in published accounts. Lab founder Conte had appeared on national television saying he witnessed Jones using a performance-enhancing drug. She denied it.
Trevor Graham, a former coach of Jones, had set off the scandal by mailing a syringe of undetectable designer steroid to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The federal raid of BALCO followed.
Also, Jones was admonished by sponsor Nike for associating with Charlie Francis, a steroid-stained sprint coach banned from international competition by Canadian track officials.
In Pfaff, Jones hired a respected veteran with an untarnished reputation. In 30 years of coaching, Pfaff has directed 33 Olympians, including 1996 100-meter champion Donovan Bailey of Canada, and 29 NCAA individual national champions at Texas, Texas El Paso, Louisiana State and Florida.
However, their relationship was doomed, Pfaff told the Texas arbitrator.
According to Pfaff, Jones declined to provide him with any of her medical lab results, blood work or her personal doctor’s records -- information Pfaff said he needed to properly train Jones.
Jones failed to qualify for sprint competition in the 2004 Olympics and fell short of a medal in the long jump. Nike ended its affiliation after her disappointing showing. A Nike spokesman declined to comment.
Jones fired Pfaff, accusing him of disclosing confidential information to Nike and undermining her endorsement contract. She sued him for breach of contract in 2005.
Pfaff denied her allegations and countersued for unpaid fees. A Texas arbitrator has ruled in favor of Pfaff, but efforts to recover the $240,000 judgment continue.
Jones’ financial status remains uncertain. The Times found a 2006 dispute over “back rent and damages” filed by a landlord against Jones and former boyfriend Tim Montgomery in Suffolk, Va. The case led to a court judgment totaling $1,380.42 that has since been paid.
She also has attempted to force Montgomery to pay child support, court records show. Jones accused the sprinter of failing “to adequately contribute to the support and maintenance” of their son in a complaint filed in 2006. In her April 2007 deposition, however, she said she still is not receiving such support.
Today, Jones, 31, lives in Austin, Texas, with her new husband, Obadele Thompson of Barbados, an Olympic bronze medalist in the 100 meters in 2000.
The couple live in a home with an assessed value of $206,792, according to Travis County property records. The residence, on a 6,000-square-foot lot, is recorded in Thompson’s name.
Steve Riddick, Jones’ most recent coach, said Jones has complained to him that a few track meets had failed to pay her last year, but the coach said he also noticed Jones was driving a Porsche sport utility vehicle to their 2006 practices.
“I didn’t see any signs that she was struggling,” Riddick said.
The coach said he asked Jones this week if she intended to race again. “She hasn’t decided, but I anticipate she’ll want to get ready for the Olympic Games one more time,” Riddick said.
Times researcher Robin Mayper contributed to this report.
Begin text of infobox
A heavy-medal background
Marion Jones, born in Los Angeles, went to high school at Rio Mesa and Thousand Oaks before emerging as an international star:
*--* OLYMPIC GAMES Medal Olympics Event Gold 2000 Sydney 100m Gold 2000 Sydney 200m Gold 2000 Sydney 1,600m relay Bronze 2000 Sydney 400m relay Bronze 2000 Sydney Long jump WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS Medal Year Event Gold 1997 Athens 100m Gold 1997 Athens 400m relay Gold 1999 Seville 100m Bronze 1999 Seville Long jump Silver 2001 Edmonton 100m Gold 2001 Edmonton 400m relay Gold 2001 Edmonton 200m
Sources: USATF.com, USOC.org
Los Angeles Times