Athletics: Jones frees the talent

At 22 the world's most gifted woman runner is beginning to realise just how good she could be; Simon Turnbull hears that the sprinting record books are in for some heavy rewriting
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The Independent Online
HAD it not been for the summer Florence Griffith-Joyner enjoyed in the sun, a particularly scorching one, Marion Jones would have been pushing through the female human speed limit as she tore down the home straight in the Municipal Stadium, Chengdu, in China, on Tuesday.

In stopping the track-side clock at 10.71sec, the young American became the second fastest woman of all time. It was a momentous achievement in its own right, considering that the women's world record for 100m has been out of sight, let alone reach, since Griffith-Joyner hung up the racing spikes in which she sizzled from obscurity to posterity 10 years ago.

The Chinese whispers might not have been so deafening had Flo-Jo's transformation from also-ran to historical untouchable not been so sudden or quite so emphatic. In 1987 she was quick enough to take only the 200m silver medal, behind Silke Gladisch of East Germany, in the World Championships in Rome. A year later she blazed through the Seoul Olympics, striking gold in the 100m, the 200m and the 4 x 100m. She blazed through the world record books too, reducing the 100m best from 10.76sec to 10.49sec and the 200m best from 21.71sec to 21.34sec.

The Californian with the six-inch fingernails and the penchant for one- legged running suits could only have done it with pharmaceutical assistance, the cynical world screamed. The suspicions were hardly allayed when Griffith- Joyner, having discovered previously hidden powers at the age of 28, sped into abrupt retirement. The record books, however, show that Flo-Jo passed every drugs test she took.

The final word on the matter was hers. "I know exactly what people are saying about me," she said before leaving Seoul, "but I have never used drugs and I never will, I never will use drugs." She never ran again and for a decade it has seemed her records might never be broken - until now, that is.

The time Jones recorded in China on Tuesday may have put her ahead of the historical world order behind Griffith-Joyner but she is still 0.22sec behind record pace. That is a considerable margin in an event in which hundredths of a second are decisive but Jones, quite clearly, has considerable room for improvement yet. "It was an excellent time," she said in Chengdu, "but my start was slow. I know I can go faster."

The question is precisely how much faster. At 22, Jones certainly has time on her side. She also has a deep reserve of natural talent to draw upon, talent she has been tapping with serious training for just 14 months now.

In her high-school days in Thousand Oaks, California, Jones was the fastest girl in the world. At 16 she ran 11.14sec for 100m and 22.58sec for 200m. She turned down a place in the US Olympic 4 x 100m relay squad in 1992 to contest the World Junior Championships instead. But then her sporting ambitions went off track. At college she used her speed as a point guard on the basketball court, leading the University of North Carolina to the national collegiate title. Only since March last year has she been in serious training as a senior athlete.

The rough edges were evident in the World Championships last summer, where Jones virtually climbed out of her blocks to win the 100m title and plopped school sports day style into the sand pit for 10th place. But the raw talent was glaringly evident too and, under the guidance of Trevor Graham, her coach at Durham - Durham, North Carolina, that is - she has been making rapid progress this year. She has already exceeded her long-jump target for the season, venturing 5cm beyond the 7m mark in Osaka last weekend, and her goals for 100m (10.60sec) and 200m (21.60sec) now look eminently achievable.

With no global championships this summer, the competitive focal point for Jones will be the Goodwill Games in New York from 19 to 22 July. Griffith-Joyner's records might not fall there, or indeed on the European circuit this year. But Jones believes both the 100m and 200m times will ultimately be within her compass. She is aiming to eclipse Flo-Jo's golden Olympic deeds, too.

"My objective is to win five gold medals in Sydney," she said in Chengdu. "It is possible - the 100m, the 200m, the long jump, the 4x100m relay and the 4x400m relay." There is evidence of the seriousness of Jones' intent. In California last month she ran her first 400m race for six years, clocking a highly encouraging 50.36sec.

It was in the 4 x 400m relay in Seoul that Griffith-Joyner's quest for four Olympic golds came to grief. She failed to catch Olga Bryzgina on the final leg and had to settle for team silver. Now it is the Jones girl doing the chasing. And Flo-Jo, 10 years into retirement, is finally looking over her shoulder.