Athletics: Jones' golden career at crisis point

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For most observers of athletics, the news that Marion Jones tested positive for a banned substance at the US Championships in June has come not as a revelation but a confirmation.

The woman who established an unprecedented domination in world sprinting, winning 59 out of 60 100-metres finals between 1997 and 2002, has seen her reputation tarnished by layer upon layer of damning circumstantial evidence.

But until the announcement that traces of the illegal red blood cell-boosting hormone erythropoietin (EPO) had been found in her urine sample - usually associated with assisting endurance, EPO has also been taken by sprinters in combination with steroids - Jones had managed to run clear of proven wrongdoing.

All urine samples are split to enable a checking test, and Jones' B sample is due to be analysed on 6 September. Historically, B tests have rarely contradicted the result of initial analysis.

Jones' case provides further embarrassment for sport in general, and US sport in particular, following the recent positive tests returned by the Olympic and world 100m champion Justin Gatlin, who faces a life ban, and Tour de France winner Floyd Landis.

In 1999, when Jones made her first appearance in Britain, she announced that if she came back from the following year's Sydney Olympics with fewer than five gold medals she would be disappointed. She called it her "Drive for Five". Only three of the five medals she won in Sydney turned out to be gold, but she had established herself as the world's leading athlete.

But even at her apogee there were doubts about her performances. When Jones was16 she faced a four-year ban for failing to show up for a drugs test. She avoided any sanction with the assistance of the late Johnnie Cochran, the lawyer best known for successfully representing OJ Simpson during his murder trial.

At the Sydney Olympics Jones' then husband, the shot-putter CJ Hunter, said that he had tested positive for the banned steroid nandrolone. Jones stood by him at a press conference where the pair were supported by a nutritionist named Victor Conte, who was subsequently convicted of conspiracy to distribute steroids from his Balco laboratory in San Francisco.

Only one woman has run faster than Jones at 100m and 200m - Florence Griffiths-Joyner, whose astonishing performances at the 1988 Olympics were followed by her sudden retirement. Griffiths-Joyner is one of Jones' idols. When the 1988 double Olympic champion died 10 years later, aged 38, she had never failed a doping test. But the sporting world remained deeply sceptical.

Jones refused to be drawn on the issue. "It's not for me to say what happened with Flo-Jo,'' she said. "Since her death her name has been dragged through the mud and that does both her and her family a disservice.'' As the US Federal Inquiry into the Balco scandal implicated a widening network of athletes in 2003, Jones saw her own name dragged through the mud.

She was one of several athletes called to give evidence before the Federal Grand Jury, and documents uncovered by a raid of the Balco lab raised suspicions. The evidence included a calendar with the initials "MJ" written on it that investigators alleged gave indication of a schedule for steroid use in 2001. A cheque written to Conte from Jones' bank account was unearthed. American media sources reported that Hunter had told investigators he had personally injected his wife with banned substances and had witnessed her doing the same.

US authorities eventually concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge Jones with a doping offence and she was able to take part in the 2004 Olympics.

Jones failed to win a medal in Athens and in December 2004 she faced further allegations when Conte claimed in an interview that he had supplied performance enhancing drugs to Jones and her boyfriend Tim Montgomery, then the world 100m record holder. He alleged that he had seen Jones injecting herself with steroids. Jones successfully sued Conte for defamation and won an out-of-court settlement. But events were spiralling out of her control. She split with Montgomery - with whom she had had a son - following his admission that he had taken banned substances. Montgomery was banned for two years in 2005. While the pair were together, they earned censure from the international authorities for liaising with Charlie Francis, the coach of Ben Johnson, who was stripped of the 1988 Olympic 100m title for doping offences.

In the past month Trevor Graham, who coached Jones at the height of her success, has become the subject of a doping investigation by the International Association of Athletics Federations.

This season, at the age of 30, Jones has made a defiant return to sprinting and stands second in the world rankings. However, promoters of next month's Berlin Golden League meeting have said that she is not welcome. Organisers of Friday's Golden League meeting in Zurich felt differently, but her late withdrawal for "personal reasons" indicated their faith had been misplaced.

The woman once described by an excited Nike spokesman as "the total package" could be at risk of permanent damage.