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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

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

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

SThree: Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Do you want to get in...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before