Athletics: Jones must have everything

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The Independent Online
POLICE OFFICERS and store security men gathered outside the Barker's Building in Kensington High Street, London, yesterday morning, uncertain of how to proceed. To the fascination of passers by, photographers surrounded a tall young woman brandishing the Stars and Stripes flag. Was it a diplomatic incident or protest? Did it qualify as a disturbance? Hard to say. "What's all this?" asked one of the officers. "An American athlete," someone replied.

Not for the first time in her life, Marion Jones was creating a stir. When she stepped inside to promote her first British track appearance - at Crystal Palace on 7 August - it became superabundantly clear that this particular American athlete will cause many, far greater stirs before she unlaces her spikes for the last time.

Since returning to athletics two years ago following a top-class basketball career which saw her win the NCAA title with North Carolina State University, Jones has accelerated swiftly to confirm the huge potential which saw her set world 100 metre age bests as a 15- and 16-year- old. In her first season she won two golds at the 1997 World Championships. Last year she was beaten in just one competition - the long jump at a rainswept World Cup meeting in Johannesburg - and earned a share of the million dollar jackpot on offer for those going unbeaten in the IAAF Golden League series. She reduced her 100m best to 10.71sec (10.65sec at altitude), times bettered only by the late Florence Griffith-Joyner, and was voted the IAAF athlete of the year for a second time.

Such achievement is beyond the scope or ambition of the vast majority of athletes. But at 23, Jones regards all this as being no more than a step on the way to becoming a truly great athlete. Here, according to her, is what that will entail - four titles at this year's World Championships in Seville, at 100m, 200m, long jump and 400m relay. The following year the aim is to win an unprecedented five gold medals at the Sydney Olympics, where she will add the 100m relay to schedule which has already been arranged. "Of course it's possible," she said. "I wouldn't have said it all if I didn't think that."

Would she, someone asked, settle for fewer than five Olympic titles, perhaps just one? "No. People say that if I could come back with three golds that would be wonderful. But if I come back from Seville with anything less than four golds, and from Sydney with less than five, I will be disappointed."

This may read as arrogance, but it comes across at the time as nothing more than assurance. "When I was a little girl I knew success was going to happen to me whatever I decided to do," Jones said. "It just happened to be in track and field."

Born to a mother of Belize nationality and American father with whom she has lost contact since she was a young girl, Jones was brought up in a suburb of Los Angeles with her elder brother, Albert. "I was a tomboy, and I used to play with my brother and his friends, who were all five years older than me. When I started competing against girls of my age at school I found I was faster and stronger."

Now married to CJ Hunter, shot putt bronze medallist at the last World Championships, Jones is a bright and charming presence whose talents receive far greater recognition in Europe than in her native country, a measure of how far down the list athletics comes behind American football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey, golf... you name it. "I can go down to my neighbourhood supermarket in my flip flops and hair curlers and nobody gives a darn," Jones said with a wide grin. "What will it take to change that? Well if five Olympic golds doesn't do it, I give up."

As she homes in on times only previously achieved by Flo-Jo, whose world records have subsequently come under suspicion of being obtained through illegal methods, Jones accepts, regretfully, that any prodigious achievements will be open to similar speculation. "There comes a point when you can only say: `What can I do?' I was tested more than 20 times last year, 15 times out of competition.

"It's not for me to say what happened with Flo-Jo. Since her death her name has been dragged through the mud and that does both her and her family a disservice."

By now, Jones knows, all this speculation goes with the territory. But as she presses forward with what she believes is her destiny, she is anything but careworn.

"I live for today, and I love running and jumping. I don't want to come into the sport for a couple of years and then disappear. I want to be consistent over the years."

An American athlete. Who could yet end up as the American athlete.