Olympics: Lalova a new meteor in Jones' turbulent universe

As Marion Jones prepares to set off down the long-jump runway at Gateshead Stadium this afternoon, a new threat has emerged to her grand golden ambitions for the Athens Olympics.

Although the United States Anti-Doping Agency are continuing to investigate her relationship with the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, the long-time leading lady of track and field has yet to be charged with a doping offence - unlike her partner, Tim Montgomery, who has been summoned to answer charges at a USADA hearing tomorrow.

For the time being at least, Jones is still on course to make it to Athens the month after next. Her hold on her treasured 100m crown, however, is under serious challenge, not just from her country's zealous anti-doping body but also from a Bulgarian athlete who turned 20 only last month.

Amid the latest developments in the Balco case, it has passed without widespread notice that Ivet Lalova, a physical-education student from Sofia, has become the fastest woman of this four-year Olympiad cycle - and by some considerable margin. Running in the European Cup A League meeting in Plovdiv last weekend, she blitzed the 100m in 10.77sec. It was the fastest time for the distance since Jones won the Olympic final in Sydney in September 2000. Jones recorded 10.75 on that occasion. Last weekend, at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, the 28-year-old American clocked 11.12 - and finished in fifth place.

Lalova's stunning performance elevated her to sixth on the world all-time list, a mere 0.04sec behind Christine Arron's European record, and just 0.07sec behind Jones's fastest-ever time at sea level. A further measure of its worth was the fact that Lalova's nearest rival, Kim Geavert of Belgium, finished 0.40sec behind her - a considerable margin in sprinting terms. In February, Geavert beat Jones over 60m at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham.

It represents a huge breakthrough for Lalova, who won the European Junior 100m and 200m titles last year and who started this summer with a best 100m time of 11.14sec. Inevitably, in the current drug-clouded climate, suspicions will have been aroused.

"What can I answer to this?" Lalova's manager, Attila Spiriev, said with more than a little exasperation. "People say she has come out of the blue but in fact she ran 11.14 last year and 11.59 the year before that, so if you look at the graph her progression is a steady one [by 0.45sec last year, by 0.47sec this year]. Obviously it is not going to be easy to continue that now, but if you look at the figures there is a progression.

"She ran 11.06 in Austria at the end of May and we were expecting her to go under 11 seconds last weekend - maybe not quite so far under, but the conditions were perfect in Plovdiv.

"Miss Lalova is an exceptional talent. Even fellow managers and meeting directors were telling me that last summer. We had been expecting her to make a big jump in the indoor season. She ran 22.87 for 200m in a small meeting but then she broke a toe at home in the kitchen."

Four months on, Lalova has the world at her feet. Spiriev has been inundated with offers from meeting promoters bidding to have her in action in the run-up to Athens. The Golden League meeting in Paris on 23 July is the only confirmed date in their diary thus far. Lalova will be back on the training track at the Levski Sofia club today, under the guidance of her young coach Konstantin Milanov, while Jones is busy testing her long-jumping form in the Norwich Union British Grand Prix on Tyneside.

It was in the long jump that Jones's much-heralded "drive for five" Olympic gold medals came to grief in Sydney four years ago. In Athens her first hurdle will be the 100m, and Lalova - if she makes it to the Greek capital, that is.

In an interview with the Associated Press on Friday, Jones spoke defiantly about her battle to clear her name, and declared her intention to chase gold not just in Athens but also in the Beijing Olympics in 2008. "Monty will be five years old in 2008," she said, referring to her infant son, Tim Montgomery Jnr. "I can't wait for him to see his mom compete."

"I am fighting to preserve something that is priceless: my reputation," Jones added. "There are other Olympic Games. I have only one reputation, and that is what I am fighting to preserve. When I am off the track, this Balco situation has been somewhat of a distraction. But when I am on the track, I am totally focused on the task at hand - training hard, running fast and winning gold in Athens."

It is a task that has been suddenly made all the harder by a burgeoning 20-year-old Bulgarian.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there