Marion Jones: A world-class cheat

She was the star of the 2000 Olympics. But Marion Jones's impending disgrace for steroid use marks a spectacular fall from grace that poses fundamental questions about her sport.

Now that Marion Jones has finally admitted that she has cheated the world of athletics throughout her career, the sad truth emerges. She has cheated herself too.

The 31-year-old sprinter and long jumper pleaded guilty in a New York court yesterday to lying to federal agents about taking steroids on the eve of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, where she won 3 gold and 2 bronze medals. On the steps of the courthouse she then cheerfully announced her retirement from the sport.

Thus one of the longest and most dismal tales in a sport that has been disfigured by doping all too often in recent years reached its denouement.

Given that she was following in the dubious footsteps of her compatriot Florence Griffith-Joyner in the 100 metres event, Jones was always asked about doping, even when she emerged, fresh-faced and ambitious and articulate, as a double world champion in 1997 at the age of 20.

Two years later, while laying her plans for the "Drive for Five" in Sydney, the young woman with a Masters degree in communications and journalism from the North Carolina State University, she spoke of her " beautiful and lovely sport", adding that she could not understand anyone cheating because, "There's something about being first when everything you have done is normal, everything is legitimate."

If her reported admission of doping in a letter to friends and family on the eve of a court appearance in New York proves to be accurate, her punishment – and she believes she is facing six months in jail for lying to federal agents investigating the Balco doping scandal – will simply mark the end of a process. The news may only be reaching us now, but it seems this star of athletics imploded a very long time ago.

Things appeared to be all up with Jones in August last year when, seeking to revive her career after being sucked into the inquiry into the San Francisco laboratory which saw so many elite athletes banned – including her former boyfriend, the then world 100m record holder Tim Montgomery – she tested positive for the banned blood-booster EPO.

Her case, embarrassingly enough for the United States, swiftly followed positive doping tests on the World and Olympic 100m Champion Justin Gatlin and Floyd Landis, the Tour de France winner.

A third US doping casualty was avoided, however, when – most unusually – Jones's second or B sample failed to show up the same findings as the first. Jones was in the clear and reported herself as being "ecstatic".

But the Balco investigation process which had begun, ironically, with a tip-off to the authorities from her disaffected former coach Trevor Graham, was working itself through to the point where this fleet-footed daughter of a mother from Belize and an American father with whom she has long since lost touch had nowhere to run.

Five years ago Jones and Montgomery were seen by the wider world – if not by everyone close to the sport – as a golden couple. There they were, the outstanding female athlete of her generation and the world's fastest man, planning ambitiously for the future and joking about the future capabilities of their son. Now that image has been effectively destroyed. Montgomery has left the sport after a two-year ban and has also been found guilty of involvement in an illegal cheque scam. Jones, who is also reported to be about to plead guilty in connection with one charge relating to the scam, has long-since grown apart from her partner and earlier this year married the former Bahamas sprinter Obadele Thompson.

In truth, even when she returned to the sport in which she had set world under-15 and under-16 bests before going to the University of North Carolina to play basketball (she played on the university's national title-winning team in 1994), Jones was already having to field awkward questions about the dreaded D word. At the age of 16 she had faced a four-year ban for failing to show up at a drugs test, but avoided any sanction with the assistance of the late Johnnie Cochran, the lawyer best known for successfully representing O J Simpson during his murder trial.

At the Sydney Olympics, doping reared its way into her career again, although this time she was in the role of the woman standing by her man as her first husband, shot-putter CJ Hunter, tested positive for the banned steroid Nandrolone.

As Jones comforted her discomposed man-mountain at a press conference she was supported by the figure of a nutritionist who introduced himself as Victor Conte. Within three years he would become the talk of sport as founder of the Balco lab which has effectively brought down the careers of at least a dozen top-class athletes.

In December 2004, despite the fact that Jones had never tested positive, her position grew dramatically worse when Conte, who was by that time facing federal charges for steroid distribution, went public with claims that he had assisted the former Olympic and World Champion to administer herself with human growth hormone via a syringe in a California hotel room in 2001.

"After I instructed her how to do it ... she did the injection with me sitting right there next to her – right in front of me," Conte said on ABC news. Asked whether Jones was a drugs cheat, he replied: " Without a doubt."

Jones responded by suing Conte for defamation and the $25m law suit was eventually settled at an undisclosed amount. Conte has greeted the most recent news about Jones with understandable satisfaction.

Jones and Montgomery had already dismayed no less a figure than the International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge before the 2004 Olympics after they had engaged the services of Charlie Francis, the disgraced coach who looked after Ben Johnson, the Canadian who had the 1988 Olympic 100 metres title stripped from him after testing positive for the banned steroid Stanozolol.

Jones's initial reaction was spiky, but before long she and her partner shifted away from a man whose name will always be synonymous with doping.

By 2006, after a succession of athletes including Montgomery and the double world sprint champion from 2003, Kelli White had all succumbed to suspension through evidence unearthed by the Balco inquiry, the IOC made it clear they were continuing to monitoring Jones's case.

Although she had failed to earn selection for the 2004 Olympics, she appeared to have made a triumphant return to her sport in the summer of 2006 by winning the 100m at the US National Championships in Indianapolis. She then withdrew from the 200m, citing tired legs. Two months later news of her positive test in Indianapolis for EPO emerged, and the widespread conclusion was that her career was over.

Jones's fall is all the more painful to witness given the bright way in which her career started. Jones grew up in Thousand Oaks, California raised by her mother, a first generation immigrant from Belize who worked as a legal secretary. She only knew her father when a small child.

As a child, she was soon outrunning her half brother, Albert, who was five years her elder, and during the 1984 Olympics in nearby Los Angeles, Jones printed neatly on a blackboard in her bedroom: "I'm going to be an Olympic champion in 1992."

Jones's ambition might have been achieved had she accepted a place as a reserve for the US sprint relay team at the 1992 Barcelona Games but, unconvinced about whether she would get a run as a 16-year-old newcomer, she turned down what could have been her first Olympic gold. A foot injury in 1996 meant she had to wait another four years to claim that first gold, winning the 100m in Sydney by a huge margin in sprinting of a third of a second.

But that first Olympic trial was already overshadowed by the revelations that had occurred in the full glare of the world's media.

Now Jones finds herself there again, and for the wrong reasons.

According to the Washington Post she has written to her friends and family, "I am sorry for disappointing you in so many ways."

It could be argued that the person she has most disappointed is herself given that, whatever pharmaceutical aids she may have had down the years, she was self-evidently an athlete of enormous natural ability. The truly awful thing for both herself and the sport is that she never had sufficient faith – or was never allowed to have sufficient faith – to see just how far that talent would go.

The drugs don't work Recent sporting scandals

* BARRY BONDS (Baseball)

Bonds' increased strength and change in physique led to claims he was being supplied with performance-enhancing supplements by trainer Greg Anderson. Bonds has always denied the allegations but the lingering suspicion tainted his breaking of the Major League home run record in August.

* CJ HUNTER (Shot put)

Marion Jones's former husband tested positive for steroids on four separate occasions in 2000, while he was married to her. Retired after deciding not to contest the charges, despite protesting his innocence. The couple separated and divorced in 2001.

* Kelli White (Sprinter)

Stripped of 2003 World Championship gold medals in the 100m and 200m after she admitted taking tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) and erythropoietin (EPO), again provided by Victor Conte, head of Balco. Accepted a two-year ban, saying: "I have not only cheated myself, but also my family, friends and sport. I am sorry for the poor choices I have made."

* DWAIN CHAMBERS (Sprinter)

Failed a drugs test in 2003, testing positive for THG. Handed a two-year ban by UK Athletics and stripped of silver for the 4x100m relay at the 2003 World Championships, leading to criticism from Great Britain team-mate Darren Campbell, who lost his medal.

* Tim Montgomery (Sprinter)

Former partner of Jones, testified to obtaining steroids from Balco. Had results annulled and stripped of 100m world record time. Arrested for money laundering last year with sentencing due next month.

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