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Athletics: 'Criminal conspiracy' of world sprint king

The world's fastest human built his success on the systematic abuse of two powerful and illegal drugs. Mike Rowbottom reports

With his broad, child-like face and soft South Carolina drawl, Tim Montgomery is far from the stereotypical brash US sprinter. But two factors saw him force his way to the forefront of his event.

The first was his achieve-ment in setting a world 100 metres record of 9.78sec in 2002. The second was his involvement with Marion Jones, whose feat of winning five Olympic medals, three gold, in 2000 established her as the world's pre-eminent female athlete. It was a relationship that went public in the aftermath of Montgomery's world record run as the pair kissed each other in their excitement.

At that point, the two sprinters were celebrated as the golden couple of world athletics, and even as late as February of last year they were both making plans to leave their eight-month-old son, Tim Jnr, with their grandparents as they competed in the Athens Olympics.

By the time the Games took place, however, Jones had qualified for only one event, finishing fifth in the long jump, and Montgomery had not even made the trip after failing to qualify in the US trials.

What had happened in the interim was akin to a personal earthquake as the scandal centring upon Victor Conte's Balco laboratory broke and threatened to engulf both of them.

Montgomery and Jones endured an earlier controversy in 2003 when they were widely criticised after hiring the coach who had guided a drug-assisted Ben Johnson to the Olympic gold in 1988, and who had subsequently made it clear that he felt doping was the only realistic means of attaining success - Charlie Francis.

Partly through pressure from sponsors, the couple dropped Francis and soon they were both moving into the orbit of Conte.

But as Federal investigators insisted that both athletes testified to a grand jury, life became increasingly difficult for them.

Jones has never been charged with any doping offence. But in July 2004 she was accused by her former husband C J Hunter - who received a two-year doping ban in 2000 for steroid abuse - of injecting herself with prohibited substances. Five months later, Conte also accused her of doping abuse, telling the ABC television news programme 20/20 that she had administered herself with human growth hormone in a California hotel room at the start of 2001. Jones denied the claims, and started legal proceedings against Conte.

In the same programme, Conte said he had developed a plan that included doping coupled with physical training specifically targeted at making Montgomery the world's fastest man.

"I knew that this was the most coveted of all records," he said. "So we kind of ... had a collective dream ... and I was ... the mastermind, so to speak." Asked if he was talking about a "criminal conspiracy to break the world record," Conte said: "Well, if you're asking if it included illegal activity, the answer would be yes."

Conte, however, said that he believed Montgomery was just the latest world record holder to have enhanced his abilities. "When you say legitimate, I believe if it was achieved using the exact same playing field, then it is legitimate, because you're competing with the same terms and conditions... I mean, otherwise you'd have to wipe out all the world records," he said.

Montgomery has maintained his denials in public, but leaked evidence from the Federal grand jury which took place in November 2003 indicated that he had admitted using human growth hormone and a steroid-like "magic potion" provided by Conte over an eight-month span ending in the summer of 2001.

He told the grand jury that Conte had assured him "the clear" - the term used for designer steroid THG (tetrahydrogestrinone) - was not an illegal steroid, but he acknowledged that he knew human growth hormone was on the list of banned substances.

By the time of the US Olympic trials in 2004, Montgomery and his partner were both being tracked by a media posse. "This is the reason I didn't win," Montgomery complained.

Montgomery showed his potential in 1994 when, aged 19, he won the US Junior Colleges 100m title in 9.96sec. It would have been a world junior record, but the wind gauge was sited incorrectly. Since then, save for his world record in Paris three years ago, this resident of Gaffney, South Carolina, has failed to deliver.

Although he earned a silver medal at the 2001 World Championships, he has failed to make the US Olympic team at the last three Olympics.

But an unexpected performance at the 2002 Grand Prix final, in front of a half-empty 25,000-seater Stade Charlety, sent him to the top of the world list. In a following wind just within legal margins he stopped the clock at 9.78, taking 0.01sec off the mark set by his US rival Maurice Greene - and, before it was annulled because of doping offences, by Ben Johnson in the 1988 Olympic final.

Montgomery maintained afterwards that Paris would see more memorable deeds at the following year's World Championships. "You're going to see the greatest running you've ever seen in your life," he predicted. In the event, he finished a lacklustre fifth in 10.11 in a race won in 10.07 by Kim Collins of St Kitts and Nevis.