At the 2000 U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Sacramento, Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won the first women’s Olympic marathon in Los Angeles in 1984, entered a corporate box above the stadium with her two young daughters and saw Marion Jones watching the competition on the track below. The girls were fascinated by Jones, Samuelson told a publicist. Would it be possible for them to meet her?
Soon Jones was fussing over them, and Samuelson, beaming, was asking me how old Jones was. Twenty-four, I said.
“Twenty-four . . . 28 . . . 32 . . . Samuelson said, grinning as she ticked off forthcoming Olympiads on her fingers. “You know, [Jones] should compete in as many Olympics as she wins medals in Sydney. Maybe she could finish her career by running the marathon.”
With the image last week of Jones standing weeping on the courthouse steps still fresh, it might be difficult to recall a time when she was all but inescapable as the symbol of the possibilities, and the joy, that could flow from a life devoted to sport.
Marion in a series of Nike commercials whose punch lines (“Where’s the love? Can you dig it?”) became national catchphrases. Marion on billboards scowling behind Jack Nicholson-like wraparounds for Oakley Sunglasses. Marion wearing a sexy tube top in an ad for TAG Heuer watches. Marion coming out of the starting blocks in a book of photos by Annie Leibovitz. Marion in fashion shoots for Vogue.
Marion on the cover of Time and Newsweek at the same time and -- I swear this is true -- in a robotic diagram superimposed over her picture on the cover of Scientific American.
How she got to that point might also seem a little hazy now. Jones, whose nine state sprint and long jump championships and basketball prowess make her possibly the finest high school athlete, male or female, California has ever produced. Jones, who as a freshman was the starting point guard on North Carolina’s NCAA championship basketball team. Jones, who in 1998 compiled the most astonishing season in the history of track and field, competing in 38 events on five continents and winning 37 of them.
She emerged from that odyssey ranked No. 1 in the world at 100 and 200 meters and in the long jump, and I had seen enough. Write a book with me, I’d asked her. I’ll hang around next season and we’ll get it out before the Olympics. Fine, she said. Let’s do it.
We talked about drugs at length and about the perception that her sport is full of cheats, many with Olympic medals in their drawers. She took it very personally, she said. It made every top track and field athlete a suspect, which wasn’t fair.
“All I can do is continue to be clean and to be around people who are clean,” she said.
I would see those words plucked from the book and thrown back at her many times in the years to come.
In the last few days, it has been said that Jones’ admission of doping is a tragedy for her sport, and although that is certainly true it is also quite embarrassing. The woman who finished second at 100 meters in Sydney, Katerina Thanou, was banished from the 2004 Olympics in her native Greece one day before the opening ceremony after failing to show up for a drug test. She came up with a cock-and-bull story nobody believed about a motorcycle accident, and her coach was later caught possessing large amount of steroids. So the International Olympic Committee finds itself in the uncomfortable position of stripping a gold medal from one drug cheat and giving it to another.
But Jones’ fall from grace is a tragedy for her too, particularly -- and here is where I go outside and start baying at the moon -- because it was so unnecessary.
Jones says her coach, Trevor Graham, first gave her steroids in 1999. But BALCO chief Victor Conte, whose interview in 2004 with ESPN the Magazine offered the first credible charges against her, says he didn’t begin providing them until a year later, six weeks before the Olympics. He didn’t even meet Jones, Conte says, until after the Games had begun. Whatever the case, there is no evidence that Jones took drugs until long after she had established herself as by far the finest female track athlete in the world.
After the 100-meter final in Sydney, Sports Illustrated ran a picture of the race. Or rather, two pictures on facing pages. The page on the right showed Jones dashing toward the finish line. The one on the left showed the other runners almost comically far behind. Her victory in the 200 a few days later was by the largest margin in 40 years and her 1,600-meter relay leg turned a close race into a U.S. rout. How many yards would you have won those races by if you hadn’t taken drugs? I want to yell at her. What was the point?
Why did she do it? One hypothesis, a favorite of amateur psychologists everywhere, is the bad-man theory. She put her faith in a manipulative husband/boyfriend/coach/trainer/lawyer/advisor, take your pick. It all goes back to her father deserting the family when she was very young and her search for a surrogate.
I don’t buy it for a minute. Jones is a strong, determined, intelligent woman who took charge of every aspect of her career. Did she listen to bad advice? Certainly. Was she Trilby to some evil Svengali? Certainly not.
But all right then, why? I think it was her determination to do something nobody else had done. I think it was those five gold medals she wanted to win.
I think she and Graham looked at the Olympic schedule and saw that in a period of 10 days she would have to run three races at 100 meters, three at 200 meters, compete twice in the long jump, run heats in the 400- and 1,600-meter relays and then run the relay finals less than two hours apart. I think they decided she would need help. I think they bought into the widespread notion among athletes that steroids would help her recovery time.
And that is the real tragedy. If Jones had settled for less -- the sprints, say, and the shorter relay -- she would have ended up with so much more. Evelyn Ashford won an Olympic gold medal when she was 35 years old. Merlene Ottey ran in the Olympics when she was 40. Gail Devers beat an Olympic champion in an indoor race this year at age 41. Jones, who should now be in training for her third Olympics, retired a week to the day before her 32nd birthday.
Look at her standing on the courthouse steps. Listen to her admission of guilt, to her apology, to how heartfelt her words are, to how perfectly her sentences are constructed. She is not reading from a script. She never does. I have seen her do this dozens of times -- to stadiums full of people, to clusters of adoring little girls and admiring men and women young and old, to news conferences before laughing reporters who are putty in her hands.
She is as good at this as she was at running, and she could have made a life out of it -- traveling the world as a goodwill ambassador for track and field, returning to the Olympics as a television commentator and honored guest, speaking as a powerful advocate for women’s sports, inspiring youngsters wherever she went.
Instead, she’s going to prison.
Jones says those of us who admired and believed in her have a right to feel angry and betrayed, and I suppose I do, a little. Mostly, though, I just feel sad. Sad that smiling golden girl who was cheered on tracks all over the world has made such a mess of things. Sad she traded her future for two bronze medals.
Ron Rapoport was a sportswriter for The Times and a sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Los Angeles Daily News. He has written a number of books, including “See How She Runs: Marion Jones and the Making of a Champion.”