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.
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