The world of athletics was engulfed in another scandal last night after the American sprinter Marion Jones, winner of five medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, announced her retirement from sport moments after pleading guilty to lying to federal investigators about her use of steroids.
"Because of my actions, I am retiring from the sport of track and field, a sport which I deeply love," Jones said outside the courthouse in New York, with tears streaming down her cheeks. Jones pleaded guilty to investigators about her drug use and also about a separate case of cheque fraud.
The 31-year-old sprinter and long jumper from Raleigh, North Carolina, who now looks likely be stripped of her medal haul, appeared at a US District Court in White Plains, New York, yesterday on charges connected with steroid use and an unrelated financial issue. She has reportedly sent friends and family a letter in which she has come clean on her doping record going back to before the Sydney Games.
Before her appearance, The Washington Post reported that the woman once feted on the covers of Vogue and Sports Illustrated as the world's pre-eminent athlete was ready to admit she faces six months in jail, with sentencing due in three months. She writes: "I want to apologise for all of this. I am sorry for disappointing you in so many ways."
The International Olympic Committee has acknowledged that Jones will forfeit her medals if doping charges are upheld.
The Washington Post also reported that, in her letter, Jones said she lied about a $25,000 cheque given to her by her former boyfriend, the sprinter Tim Montgomery, who pleaded guilty in New York in April as part of a criminal scheme to cash millions of dollars worth of stolen or forged cheques.
Montgomery and Jones, who have a son, Monty, were something of a golden couple in athletics until the former world 100m record holder was suspended for doping and the two became estranged.
The cheque was never cleared, according to records, and Jones was never charged, but it was an incident which served to lower her flagging reputation still further. "Once again, I panicked," the Post reported Jones as saying in her letter. "I did not want my name associated with this mess. I wanted to stay as far away as possible."
After years of denials, it seems the dark truth about Jones is finally surfacing. Her exceptional performances – she won 59 out of 60 of the 100m finals between 1997 and 2002 – have been questioned in recent years as she has been involved circumstantially in a series of doping incidents. In the autumn of 2003 she was among the athletes called upon to testify to a federal grand jury after the discovery of a doping regime operated from the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (Balco) in San Francisco. It was a scandal that brought down a succession of high profile performers, including Britain's European 100m champion Dwain Chambers, and Montgomery, the father of Jones's child.
Despite much incriminating evidence, including paperwork which appeared to refer to a doping timetable and used her initials, Jones remained clear of prosecution. Suspicion of her involvement in doping appeared to have been confirmed last year when she tested positive for the red blood-cell boosting hormone EPO but, most unusually, a test on the second, or B sample, failed to substantiate the first finding and she was cleared.
But now, on the eve of her court appearance, the woman once marketed by Nike as "the total package" appears to have come undone. Jones, who had hoped to win five Olympic titles in 2000 but settled for three golds and two bronzes, reportedly said in her letter that she took a substance known as "the clear" for two years, beginning in 1999, and that she got it from former coach Trevor Graham, who told her it was flaxseed oil.
"The clear" is the name given to THG, the performance-enhancing steroid at the centre of the Balco operation which was undetectable to the doping authorities until Graham, having fallen out with Balco lab owner Victor Conte, anonymously sent a sample to a Los Angeles laboratory.
Baseball's leading home run-maker Barry Bonds, of the San Francisco Giants, was among two dozen other athletes obliged to testify at the grand jury. Bonds denied knowingly taking performance-enhancing drugs.
Until now, Jones has denied doping, even suing Conte in 2004 for $25m (£13m) after he accused Jones of using performance-enhancing drugs, describing on television how he had watched her inject herself.
In her letter, Jones said she didn't realise she'd used performance-enhancing drugs until she stopped training with Graham at the end of 2002. She said she lied when federal agents questioned her in 2003, panicking when they presented her with a sample of "the clear," which she recognised as the substance Graham gave her.
A century of drugs in sport
1904: Records show first use of drugs at Olympics in St Louis, USA
1998: Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson's spectacular 100m victory in record time turned sour after he failed the subsequent drugs test when the steroid Stanozolol was found in his urine. Johnson, pictured below, later admitted to using it as well as Dianabol, Cypionate, Furazabol, and human growth hormone, and was stripped of his gold medal in disgrace
2007:The Tour de France, scene of many drugs scandals, saw no fewer than five cyclists involved with drug incidents this year. Two were expelled from the race, one was found doping during training, a fourth found to have tested positive for drugs after the end of the race and a fifth to have lied about his whereabouts during tests
1990s: The legendary Maradona of Argentina followed his "Hand of God" goal against England in 1986 with a string of drug scandals throughout the 1990s. Other footballers, such as the former Arsenal striker Paul Merson, have discussed their battles with drugs
2002: The former Chelsea keeper Mark Bosnich tested positive for cocaine, resulting in a nine-month ban – and the sack from Chelsea
2003: Rio Ferdinand received an eight-month detention after missing a drugs test, leading to him missing the Euro 2004 competition for EnglandReuse content