Athletics: Jones tries to leave frustration in wake

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The Independent Online

With less than six months to go before the Olympics start in Athens, Marion Jones is back in the running - and the jumping - after taking a year and a half out to have a baby boy who is named after her husband, world 100m record holder Tim Montgomery.

Four years ago, in the run-up to the Sydney Games, all the talk was of Jones's "drive for five" ­ her intention to win five gold medals at her first Olympics, which eventually became three golds and two bronzes. But this time around, the 28-year-old phenomenon from Raleigh, North Carolina is pursuing her Olympic ambitions against a wider background of anxiety in the wake of the San Francisco Grand Jury investigation into the alleged doping conspiracy centring on Victor Conte's Balco laboratory.

Jones and her partner were among 25 sportsmen and women subpoenaed to give evidence, and since making her comeback at New York's Millrose Games a fortnight ago, she has grown accustomed to questions about the case that has now seen Conte and three others indicted.

Before winning her 60 metres at Madison Square Garden in 7.21sec, Jones said: "I met Mr Conte a number of years ago. Did our conversation involve anything about performance-enhancing drugs? No."

Yesterday, speaking near to Birmingham's national indoor arena, where she will make her second and final appearance of the indoor season in the Norwich Union Grand Prix tomorrow, Jones addressed the matter again. "In terms of what Mr Conte is involved with, I've stated my case," she said. "I'm for a drug-free sport and I've been called to testify in front of a grand jury. Besides that I'm not allowed to talk about the details."

One detail she did feel able to discuss, however, related to the cheque for $7,350 (£3,900) apparently paid into Conte's bank account from an "...Olympic gold medal winner". That, she maintained firmly, had nothing to do with her. Closer inspection of the released court documents shows that this payment was made on 8 September 2000 ­ a few weeks before Jones won the first of her Olympic medals.

If her patience was strained, however, it was not showing. But Jones has had to deal with enough awkward issues in the area of doping over the last four years to have become aware of the power of guilt by association.

Before the Sydney Olympics, her then husband, the shot putter C J Hunter, dropped out after details of a positive test for steroids emerged. And in the winter of 2002, she and her new partner roused widespread criticism when they linked up with the man who had guided the career of the disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson before sponsor pressure forced them to rethink.

Earlier this week, Jones commented: "We were there with Mr Francis. There were athletes whose names you would know who were consulting with him. There is guilt by association in this sport, so we did receive some bad press. But I don't regret consulting him."

The fall-out from the Balco case seems to be everywhere ­ Dwain Chambers' disciplinary hearing following his positive test for the so called "designer" steroid tetrahydrogestrinone will conclude on the same day Jones takes part in the long jump and 60 metres in Birmingham. It is a situation the normally ebullient Jones finds dispiriting.

"As an athlete, I'm frustrated that people create things and try to cheat," she said yesterday. Asked how clean she thought her sport was, she responded: "That would mean I know who is on drugs and I don't have that information. I know that one person in particular is drug-free and that is myself. But I can't speak for other athletes. For me to give it a percentage would be totally unfair to the rest of the sport.

"If I put all my eggs in one basket, if I train 100 per cent, I know with my talent level and my confidence that if you decide to cheat against me I'm still going to win the race."