Friday, January 11, 2008

Jones's Soaring Career Now a Cautionary Tale

Stephen Chernin/Getty Images
Marion Jones acknowledged outside a federal court in October 2007 that she had used performance-enhancing drugs.

The New York Times
Published: January 11, 2008

Once, Marion Jones ran through the streets for a commercial, her girl-next-door smile and spectacular talent sprinting across television screens throughout America. She would become the most glamorous Olympian in 2000, winning five medals, including three golds, and a rare track and field star who was a household name.

From that height, Jones’s fall has been spectacular. She will be sentenced Friday at the United States District Court in White Plains after pleading guilty to two counts of perjury in October. For years she had defiantly denied using performance-enhancing drugs, but her plea came with a sobbing admission on the courthouse steps that she had used drugs, had been involved in a bank-fraud scheme and had lied to government investigators.

She also retired from track and field that day. There would be no more running. The tearful, regretful Jones officially replaced the conquering one.

“It’s sad because you know so many youngsters looked up to her, and their hopes were crushed,” said Kevin Young, the 1992 gold medalist and world-record holder in the 400-meter hurdles, who said he had known Jones since she was 11. “She’ll always be a role model, because of who she is. Even now, she can say, ‘I made a mistake. I took drugs.’ We all need to be out there telling kids, ‘You don’t need to do this.’ ”

For years, Jones had been saying that. Insisting she was clean, Jones spouted an antidrug message. Now, she stands as the prime example of what drug use can cost.

Judge Kenneth M. Karas will decide Friday whether to follow the recommendation in Jones’s plea deal that she serve zero to six months. He could choose up to a year, giving her six months for each count, or not follow the recommendation at all. Prosecutors recently offered the judge more evidence of Jones’s drug use — doping calendars and a doctor’s testimony that signaled use of EPO and human growth hormone. Jones’s lawyers have argued that the consequences of her plea have already been steep enough.

Jones turned over her five medals from the 2000 Olympics, and the International Olympic Committee and the track federation wiped from their books her results dating from Sept. 1, 2000. A 32-year-old mother of two young sons, she is reportedly broke, having squandered the millions she earned in winnings and endorsements.

“She has shown that the risks of being caught cheating are too high,” said Travis Tygart, chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency. “Her case more than any other shows that the first step down the path of deceit is that first decision to cheat. That started everything else. She had to lie to cover up that cheating.

“I hope young athletes see that and decide not to go down that path.”

Perhaps the saddest part of Jones’s story is that many believe she could have accomplished everything she did without drugs. She had been such a transcendent talent, setting national high school records in the 200 meters and the long jump in California and winning a national championship in basketball at the University of North Carolina before turning professional as a runner. She dominated the world scene in the 100 and 200 meters and vied for titles in the long jump before her admitted drug use.

That talent came in such an appealing package, with a luminescent smile and a charming personality, and marketers helped turn her into a mainstream star. Nike created the advertising campaign that made her an icon by the 2000 Olympics.

But she also surrounded herself with questionable people.

Jones’s first husband, the shot-putter C. J. Hunter, tested positive for steroids and was banned from the Sydney Olympics. She later had a relationship with Tim Montgomery, with whom she had her first child. He was banned from track for life for drug use and was convicted in the bank-fraud scheme that also snared Jones. She was coached for many years by Trevor Graham, who will go on trial in March for perjury stemming from the investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative. Later she turned to Coach Steve Riddick, who was also convicted in the bank-fraud case.

“She made bad decisions, and we become the decisions we make,” said Pat Connolly, a veteran track coach who once coached Evelyn Ashford and who has known Jones since her high school days. “That’s Marion’s story.

“It is sad, but people like Marion Jones and Barry Bonds are also victims of an establishment that not only allowed drug use but quietly condoned it. They allowed the idea to spread that everyone else is doing it.”

Connolly said that one of track’s biggest black eyes was that many of its world records are widely suspected to be drug-aided. Jones wanted to set world records that probably cannot be reached naturally, Connolly said. She suggested wiping out all the records and starting anew.

Connolly is also among the growing chorus of people who are frustrated with the ineffectiveness of drug testing and want sports to adopt profiling, where athletes would provide a full health history of blood tests and other baselines throughout their careers that would better indicate if they use drugs. It is a concept supported by Don Catlin, who used to run the antidoping laboratory at U.C.L.A. and now does drug research.

“The injustice is that the innocent can’t prove their innocence,” Connolly said. “The whole approach to drugs has to be redone.”

Tygart said he hoped the current system had reached a turning point with the Balco investigation and Jones’s admission. He said he believed an overwhelming majority of athletes compete without drugs.

“We are all desperate to believe and want to believe in these athletes and these performances,” Tygart said. “But who can you believe? I think we’re at a significant point. I hope there will be an answer for that.”

For now, Jones serves as a cautionary tale that even the brightest smile can be hiding a lie.

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