Former Olympic track and field superstar Marion Jones pleaded guilty Friday to federal criminal charges that she lied to investigators about using steroids before her five-medal performance at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, and about her involvement in an unrelated New York-based counterfeit check scheme.
The admission that she used steroids, made in U.S. District Court in White Plains, N.Y., represents a fall from grace for a woman who was once among the most celebrated athletes in the world.
For years, the 31-year-old sprinter persistently and passionately denied ever taking performance-enhancing drugs, but her statements in court on Friday not only make it probable she will be stripped of her five medals -- a women’s track and field record -- but also cast grave new doubts over sports’ greatest accomplishments in this steroid era.
Jones faces sentencing Jan. 11. The plea agreement stipulates that she receive no longer than a six-month sentence.
Outside court, Jones faced the media, tears streaming down her face, and announced she was “retiring from the sport of track and field, a sport which I deeply love.”
“It is with a great amount of shame that I say I have betrayed your trust,” Jones said. “I have let my country down.”
In accepting a plea agreement, she also becomes the first athlete to be convicted who had ties to the BALCO scandal. A 2003 federal raid on the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative in Northern California forced illegal steroid use into the open. A number of athletes were swept up in the ensuing investigation, Jones and home run king Barry Bonds among them.
But for one magical summer, Jones won worldwide fame and Americans’ hearts at the 2000 Olympics, winning gold in the 100- and 200-meter sprints and the 1,600 relay, and taking bronze in the 400 relay and the long jump. Those performances, now stained by her admission of steroid use, led the International Assn. of Athletics Federations to name her athlete of the year.
Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission, told The Times that Jones’ being stripped of the medals is “a formality.”
“They have her own statements, that’s enough,” he said. “They will take her medals.”
The man leading the IOC’s three-year-old investigation into Jones’ involvement with the BALCO told the Associated Press that Jones’ case could be finalized by the end of the year.
“With the admissions, the facts are quite clear,” IOC vice president Thomas Bach of Germany said. The IOC executive board is scheduled to meet Dec. 10-12 in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Other track records Jones achieved while doping could be vacated in a review by USA Track and Field and the IAAF, said a U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman.
In addition, the USOC is urging Jones to return her medals.
Jones has angered many officials because of her steadfast denials. After the BALCO raid, she hired a team of attorneys and publicists to wage an intense public-relations campaign that she “never, ever” used drugs to boost her performance.
She repeated those claims last year after an initial test that found she had tested positive for the blood-doping drug erythropoietin (EPO) was refuted by a negative “B” sample.
Peter Ueberroth, USOC chairman, said, “Ms. Jones should immediately step forward and return the Olympic medals she won while competing in violation of the rules.”
In a letter distributed to friends and family members, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, Jones acknowledged that she took BALCO’s previously undetectable designer steroid known as “the clear” at the urging of her former track coach, Trevor Graham, and then covered up that fact. She said Graham told her “the clear” was flaxseed oil, the same explanation Bonds has given.
Graham already has been indicted for lying to federal prosecutors, and his trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 26. Jones is expected to be called as a prosecution witness.
Prosecutors said in court records released Friday that Jones lied to federal agents in the BALCO case about never having seen “the clear.” When the agents asked her if she had ever ingested the banned substance, Jones lied again.
In the New York case, prosecutors investigated Jones’ acceptance of a fraudulent $25,000 check given to her by her ex-boyfriend and world-class sprinter Tim Montgomery, another former BALCO client who fathered one of Jones’ children.
Jones’ financial problems came to light this year in a Texas lawsuit won by her former coach, Dan Pfaff. In an April declaration, Jones claimed she had “total liquid assets” of $2,000.
Jones had been ranked the No. 6 most marketable athlete in the U.S. in 2001, earning an estimated $3 million annually with endorsement deals with General Motors, Panasonic and Nike among others. She was dumped by Nike as an endorser in 2005.
“We are saddened, shocked and disappointed by the fact that while we believed and trusted in Marion we also were deceived,” Nike spokesman Dean Stoyer said.
White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said she spoke with President Bush about Jones.
“What the president is really concerned about is that any professional athlete, or any athlete, or anyone who aspires to be a professional athlete, thinks that they have to use performance-enhancing drugs in order to achieve their goals,” Perino said.
Times staff writers Greg Johnson, James Gerstenzang and Helene Elliott contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Marion Jones: Year in, year out
1975 Born Oct. 12 in Los Angeles.
1988 After watching Seoul Olympics, Jones writes on her blackboard, “I want to be an Olympic champion.”
1991-92 Two-time high school track and field athlete of the year for Thousand Oaks High; misses qualifying for the 1992 Olympics by .07 of a second and declines offer to be an alternate on U.S. Olympic team.
1994 North Carolina Tar Heels win NCAA championship, with Jones as point guard.
1997 Announces she will bypass her final year of basketball eligibility to concentrate on track and field; begins training with Trevor Graham. Wins two events at U.S. championships, beating Jackie Joyner-Kersee in long jump.
1998 Wins three gold medals at U.S. championships, becoming first woman in 50 years to accomplish that feat.
1999 Wins every 100-meter and 200-meter race she enters until injured during the world championships in August.
2000 Wins three gold and two bronze medals at Sydney, the most by any woman in a single Olympics.
2002 Records first undefeated season of her track and field career.
2003 One of several athletes to testify before a federal grand jury in San Francisco investigating BALCO.
2004 Insists she is drug-free and says she will sue if the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency bars her from competing in the Athens Olympics without a positive drug test. Jones goes home empty-handed from Athens. In December, the IOC opens an investigation into doping allegations against her.
2005 Ranked No. 2 in the world in the 100.
2006 Wins 100 at the national championships. It is her 14th U.S. championship but first sprint title since 2002. Jones’ “A” sample from that meet tested positive for the banned endurance-boosting hormone EPO. For the next month, she is faced with the possibility of a two-year ban. But her “B” sample is negative. She is cleared of wrongdoing and allowed to return to competition.
2007 On Oct. 5, she admits in federal court to lying about her drug use starting in 1999 and faces up to six months in prison.
Sources: Associated Press; UTAF; The News and Observer; Sports Illustrated and news reports.
Excerpts from the letter Marion Jones sent to family and friends before she appeared in court Friday and admitted using steroids and lying to federal agents. For a full transcript of the letter, go to latimes.com/sports:
In 1999, my track coach Trevor Graham provided me with some nutritional supplements. There is one in particular that he called “flaxseed oil.” He advised me to take this supplement by placing a few drops under my tongue and then swallow. He told me that it was necessary to add this to my diet so that I could be in peak running shape. I, unfortunately, never asked him any questions about it. . . . Looking back in hindsight, red flags should have been raised in my head when he told me not to tell anyone about our workouts or supplementation program.
In 2003, I was interviewed by federal agents regarding the Balco scandal. . . . Agents asked me if I had ever seen this substance called the “clear,” and they then showed it to me. Up to this point I had heard about this steroid called the “clear,” but had never seen it, or so I thought. It was the brain child of Victor Conte. When shown the substance I recognized it immediately as the supplement that Trevor Graham had given me and had referred to as “flaxseed oil,” and knew at that moment that I had taken it for nearly 2 years. I panicked and told the agents that I had never seen the substance before. This was a lie.
At the beginning of 2006 I met with prosecutors in New York regarding a check fraud and check counterfeiting scheme they had been investigating. They had called me in because a $25,000.00 check had been deposited into my account in 2005, and apparently it was one of the counterfeit checks. I was asked if I knew anything about the check. I told the prosecutors no. This was a lie! . . . The facts are these. . . . Tim Montgomery, Monty’s biological father, gave me the check in 2005 and told me that it was from the sale of a refurbished vehicle that he owned and it would be towards partial repayment of $50,000.00 which I loaned him for attorney expenses back in 2004. The government believes that I knew about the check fraud scheme from the beginning and that I knew that the check was counterfeit. This is not the case.
Once again I panicked. I lied because I wanted to protect Monty’s biological father. Although my relationship had ended, I did not want to be the one responsible for putting him in jail or getting him in trouble. And lastly, I wanted to protect myself. I did not want my name associated with this mess. I wanted to stay as far away from it as possible. And so I lied.
I want to apologize to you all for all of this. I am sorry for putting you all through this after you have been there for me through everything. I want to apologize to you, in advance, for the questions that you will be asked about me and about your relationships with me. And lastly, I am sorry for disappointing you all, in so many ways. My intent was never to hurt any of you.