SACRAMENTO, Calif. --Even in defeat Marion Jones cracked the front page of the Sunday New York Times. Once the media darling of her sport, the Triangle's best-known athlete had promised to speak to reporters after Saturday's 100-meter dash final at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Instead Jones and her partner, 100-meter world record holder Tim Montgomery, buzzed away in a golf cart after Jones finished a well-beaten fifth in the 100, failing to make the U.S. team in an event in which she is the defending Olympic champion.
Montgomery also failed to make the U.S. team after he finished seventh in Sunday's 100 final. For months the pair have been facing intense scrutiny over allegations that they may have used steroids. On Sunday, Montgomery, who lives with Jones in Chapel Hill, went so far as to blame the media for his poor performance. He ran 10.13, far off his 2002 record of 9.78. Jones' time, 11.14, was also far off her 100 best of 10.65, run in 1998.
The fact that both are running nowhere near their bests only serves to fuel the suspicions of those who believe the pair are--in track lingo--dirty. I'm not going to speculate on the drug issue, but it's clear to me that Jones' life is in disarray, and she has no one but herself to blame for her current troubles.
The woman who won five medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics is seen by some as the victim of a witch hunt, but Jones' actions have only served to make matters worse. Even if you excuse her marriage to shot putter and drug-user C.J. Hunter as a youthful indiscretion (Jones got involved with the then-married Hunter when she was a UNC undergraduate and he was a UNC assistant track coach), how do you explain away her supposedly clear-headed decision to hire infamous Canadian coach Charlie Francis, who admitted to knowing that disgraced sprinter Ben Johnson, once coached by Francis, was using drugs when he set a world record and won the Olympic gold medal?
Last year, the now-divorced Jones had a son with Montgomery, who is now facing a lifetime ban from the sport for alleged drug use. Call me a Puritan, but a person who carries on like Jones is not the athlete I want as a role model for my five daughters. In 1998, as Jones was reaching the top of her sport and growing wealthier almost by the minute, I asked her if she planned to use her fame to address important social issues such as racism.
Like any good Nike-sponsored athlete, Jones waved off my question. "No, no, no," she said. "Child literacy, that's the most important issue." Ironically, Jones was trying to be just another homogenized Nike athlete and not address anything controversial, yet Nike has stood behind Jones through her recent troubles. In Nike thinking, an athlete can have a screwed up personal life, but please oh please don't take a stand about anything happening in the real world.
Fame and fortune have their drawbacks. Jones, a person with incredible God-given talent, has been unable to handle her success, and now, she may lose that. There's still the 200-meter dash and the long jump, an event in which Jones is favored to make the U.S. team, so all is not lost.
If she is cleared of the drug accusations, Jones can still do some great things at next month's Athens Olympics. In the meantime, she should take the advice of International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, who essentially said Jones should grow up.
"To have a link with someone like Charlie Francis is not a criminal offense, but it is damn stupid," Rogge said recently. "Ultimately, she has to ask herself something about the perception that people might have--that people might say, 'Are you sure you are living with the right people?'"
Jones called Rogge's comments "ignorant." Perhaps it's good advice.