Athletics: Jones drugs test puts sport in total despair

Former first lady of the track tests positive in US to add to the miseries of Gatlin and Balco
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The wheel is turning full circle for Marion Jones, it would seem. Back in 1992, as a 16-year-old high school sprinter, the Californian became entangled in the track and field drug-testing system. After missing a test, it took the intervention of Johnnie Cochran, the future courtroom saviour of OJ Simpson, to save her from punishment.

Now that Cochran has passed away, Jones will need a new legal heavyweight to get her off the hook. Or so it would seem. After the 30-year-old sprinter did a 5am flit from Zurich on the morning of the Weltklasse Golden League meeting on Friday, it emerged early yesterday that the "personal reasons" behind her hasty departure was in fact the single reason of a positive test, reportedly for erythropoietin.

The A sample Jones gave to testers after winning the 100m at the United States Championships in Indianapolis in June contained traces of a banned substance, reported to be the blood-boosting hormone more commonly known as EPO.

"It is unfortunate that the integrity and the confidentiality of the testing process may have been breached," Jones' current lawyer, Rich Nichols, said yesterday. "But Marion Jones has always been clear. She has never taken performance enhancing substances." Still, if the B sample tests positive, Jones will be banned for two years.

And so, evidently, the drug busters have finally caught up with the fastest woman since the late Florence Griffith-Joyner. It has taken them some time.

It is three years now since the scandal of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative first broke, bringing with it a drip-feed of reports and testimony linking Jones to the murky underbelly of performance enhancement drugs in track and field.

Her former husband, the shot putter CJ Hunter, reportedly told investigators from the Internal Revenue Service that he injected her in the midriff with the designer steroid tetraydrogestrinone (THG) when they were in Sydney for the 2000 Olympics, in which she won three gold medals and two bronzes.

Hunter also spoke of a telephone conversation in which Victor Conte, the owner of Balco, warned him that Jones could die of excessive insulin usage, allegedly having said: "Don't she know she could have a stroke if it's not taken the right way?"

In Sydney, Jones interrupted her Olympic medal campaign to offer her support, together with that of Cochran and the as-yet little-known Conte, when it was revealed that Hunter had tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone, registering 1,000 times above the allowable limit. Contaminated supplements were to blame, they said. The couple divorced in 2002.

In September 2000, Jones' new partner, Tim Montgomery, emerged from the shadows to suddenly shatter the 100m world record. When the Balco story broke, the pair left their old coach, Trevor Graham - currently under investigation by the International Association of Athletics Federations and the United States Anti-Doping Agency in the wake of Justin Gatlin's positive test for excessive testosterone - to link up briefly with Charlie Francis, Ben Johnson's coach.

Montgomery never failed a drugs test but was banned in December last year because of the weight of evidence against him in the federal investigation into the Balco case.

All the while, Jones has loudly protested her innocence, telling her accusers to look at her record and point towards any failed tests. "I have said over and over again that I am innocent of any charges," she said when she arrived on the European circuit this summer, to race in the Dutch town of Hengelo in May. "There have not been any and I do not believe there will be any."

Now, though, if her B sample tests positive, there will be a charge to answer for the woman who ran 10.65sec for 100m in 1998 and who, after two years of sluggish form following the birth of her and Montgomery's son in 2003, has re-emerged as a sub-11-second sprinter again this summer.

The bigger question, of course, is: how much more of this can track and field take? In the past three weeks, the sport's already-tarnished reputation has been dragged through the chemically-infested mud.

First came news of Gatlin's failed test; then the appointment of Linford Christie, who failed a test for nandrolone in 1999 as a mentoring coach by UK Athletics; then the disclosure that Christine Ohuruogu, the Commonwealth 400m champion, had been suspended after missing three drugs tests.

Then came Darren Campbell's refusal to join Dwain Chambers on a lap of "honour" after the 4 x 100m relay team won Britain's only gold medal in Gothenburg.

And now this - a huge surprise in that Jones had seemed to be beyond the grasp of the authorities for good.

No wonder another world-record equalling 9.77sec 100m run by Asafa Powell in Zurich on Friday passed virtually without notice. Marion Jones might be in imminent need of legal aid but track and field's twisted image is in need of radical surgery. Urgent need.