Athletics: Rejuvenated Jones puts troubles behind her

There is a new athlete on the European circuit this year - Marion Jones. The former Olympic champion may look familiar, but she is much changed from the exuberant young woman who turned up in London on the eve of the 2000 Sydney Games bubbling over with what she called her "drive for five" - a plan to take five Olympic titles.

She had to settle for three Olympic golds Down Under. At the time it seemed like a disappointment - but her fortunes since then have put that deeply in context. The woman who could once claim to be the world's greatest all-round athlete has had a traumatic ride in recent years, and at one time it looked as if she would be sucked away by the swirling doping scandal of the Balco laboratory which effectively ended the career of her former partner Tim Montgomery along with several of her US peers.

Jones has been under intense scrutiny from the United States Anti-Doping Agency following a slew of circumstantial evidence thrown up by the Balco inquiry, during which her former husband C J Hunter - who received a two-year ban for doping offences - alleged that he had injected his wife with steroids.

Last season, hampered by injury, she was also shunned by European promoters, even though she had never failed a doping test. This year, however, she has returned with a newfound energy and is competing in her first European tour for four years. No charges have been brought against her, and she appears determined to make the most of the rest of her career and, crucially, to decide for herself on what terms she will retire.

"I understand all of the factors about why I wasn't invited," Jones said. "And I wasn't running fast last year. Why pay a lot of money to someone who's not going to come and run fast?"

Now, however, the mother-of-one is looking towards rehabilitating her status in a season which will end with two lucrative events - the IAAF World Athletics final and the World Cup.

Last month, Jones's coach in North Carolina, Steve Riddick, praised her efforts to return to fitness after giving birth in 2003. "She has worked and worked until she looks like she has never had a baby," he said.

Riddick added that she would not be able to regain her 1998 level, when she ran her personal best of 10.65sec, but that she would break 11 seconds this season.

That is something she has comfortably managed in the space of the last week, having set the world's second fastest time this season in winning Friday's Paris Golden League meeting in 10.92sec, then adding victory at Tuesday's Lausanne Grand Prix in 10.94.

Jones cuts a quieter, more thoughtful figure than she used to, and she has had plenty of time to reflect upon the vicissitudes of fame, as well as assessing all the negative publicity.

"Sure, it's very difficult," she said earlier this year. "And if I was the type of person that solely relied on the opinions and the views of a select few, then I would be done with the sport. But I've never been like that, I'm not like that now. I believe in myself and what I've achieved, and the people that matter to me are my fans and my family. They know that everything I've done in the sport and in my career is truthful.

"There are going to be people, because of the allegations, that, no matter what, whether my name is totally cleared in the future or not, will believe what they want to believe. I can do just what I'm doing. I love the sport. I want to run fast. I believe in a drug-free sport, as I've always said, and that's all I can do."

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