Tarnished beauty comes face to face with the beast again

Marion Jones was once the darling of the athletics world despite her marriage to drug-tainted shot putter CJ Hunter. As Athens beckons, <i>Mike Rowbottom </i>sees a bitter feud rearing its ugly head
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The Independent Online

From the moment she emerged as a world-class athlete by winning the world 100 metres title in 1997, Marion Jones was described by her excited sponsors, Nike, as being "the total package". And it was not hard to see what they meant.

From the moment she emerged as a world-class athlete by winning the world 100 metres title in 1997, Marion Jones was described by her excited sponsors, Nike, as being "the total package". And it was not hard to see what they meant.

Smart, super-talented, with an amiable nature and a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina, Jones said all the right things and did most of them. Having announced her huge potential as a sprinter by setting successive world age bests for the 100m in her early teens, she became a college basketball player good enough to win a national collegiate title and a place in the US team for the World University Games before returning to the sport in which she made her name.

At the Sydney Olympics, where she made a widely publicised attempt to win five gold medals - it became known as Marion's "Drive for Five" - she fell marginally short of her ambition. But the result was still a record for a woman: three golds, in the 100m, 200m and 4x400m relay, and bronzes in the long jump and sprint relay.

As she approaches the Games which get underway in Athens less than three weeks from now, however, her world has changed. For "Drive for Five", you can now read "Strive to Survive".

The allegation of doping abuse by her former husband CJ Hunter which emerged yesterday is the latest and most damaging of a sequence of circumstances which have tarnished the dazzling sheen of Jones's public persona. She has not, to this day, been charged with any offence, and strenuously denies any wrongdoing. But her once easy passage through life has begun to encounter increasing drag.

Even as a 16-year-old high school sprinter, Jones was involved in an issue that caused eyebrows to be raised when she escaped sanction after failing to attend a drugs test, employing no lesser legal figure than Johnnie Cochran, with whose later assistance OJ Simpson was cleared of his infamous murder charge.

In September 2000, shortly before Marion embarked upon her medal-winning operation in Sydney, it emerged that Hunter, a 23-stone shot putter, had tested positive for the banned steroid nandrolone on four separate occasions.

Three years later, having divorced Hunter, she and her new partner, the world 100m record-holder Tim Montgomery, provoked widespread censure for engaging the services of Charlie Francis, the notorious doping enthusiast who had coached Ben Johnson to the 1988 Olympic 100m title of which he was subsequently stripped following a positive drugs test.

After reports that pressure had been brought to bear by their sponsors, Nike, the couple dropped Francis. But last September, shortly after the birth of their child, Tim Jnr - or Monty, as his proud mum calls him - the best-known couple in world athletics were embroiled in the FBI investigation into the Balco lab in San Francisco, testifying to a Grand Jury hearing which has led to the lab's owner, Victor Conte, being indicted for distributing illegal drugs.

Among the substances that Conte is charged with selling is tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), a steroid which was discovered only after an anonymous source had supplied the US Anti-Doping Agency with a sample.

Montgomery faces a life ban from the sport after last month's leak of his Grand Jury evidence, where he allegedly admitted taking a range of banned substances including THG.

And now Jones appears in peril of being placed in a similar predicament.

Her performance in the US Trials earlier this month was only good enough to earn her an individual Olympic place in the long jump, but the latest turn of events has put her Athens participation in question.

Only last month, the normally temperate president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, was startlingly critical of the 28-year-old multiple champion, describing her as "stupid" to risk her image and career by associating with men tainted by association with doping.

Jones dismissed his comments as "ignorant", but even before the season got underway several meeting promoters had effectively underlined Rogge's point by refusing to engage either Jones or Montgomery until the Balco affair had been satisfactorily dealt with.

In recent weeks, the normal ease with which Jones engages with the media has been almost totally eroded as she has endured constant questioning over the Balco case and her relation to it. After competing in the long jump at Gateshead last month, where she appeared relieved to receive a polite reception from the crowd, Jones gave only a brief trackside interview with the BBC's Sally Gunnell before leaving the stadium by a side entrance without further comment. At the US trials in Sacramento earlier this month, she refused numerous interview requests, saying at one point that the press she received would be negative whether she said anything or not.

Things have come to a dismal pass for the woman who once declared: "When I was a little girl, I knew success was going to happen to me whatever I decided to do."

Jones grew up in Thousand Oaks, California, raised by her mother, a first generation immigrant from Belize who worked as a legal secretary. Her father left home before she was old enough to know him, and her stepfather died when she was 11.

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."

Her half-brother commented: "That's how we were raised. Anything you wanted in life, you wrote it down. You thought about it, you believed it and then went out and got the things you needed to accomplish it. Everything is obtainable!"

Jones's ambition might have been achieved if she had accepted a place as a reserve for the US 4x100m relay team for the Barcelona Olympics but, not convinced that she would get a run as a 16-year-old newcomer, she turned down what could have been her first Olympic gold. "I wouldn't have felt I earned it," she said later. "I want my first gold medal to be one I sweated for."

A foot injury in 1996 meant she had to wait another eight years to claim that first gold, winning the 100m in Sydney by the relatively huge margin of a third of a second.

But that first Olympic triumph was already overshadowed by the traumatic revelations that occurred under the full glare of the world's media.

Jones's relationship with her gruff, man-mountain of a shot putter was one which had occasioned plenty of quizzical speculation within athletics circles - asked what was her "pet peeve" shortly before the Sydney Games, the response was "press-corps psychoanalysis of her bond with husband CJ".

But the odd couple, with their equally odd pairing of dogs - Izzy the chow and Paulie the mastiff - appeared happy. "CJ has a soft side," Jones maintained. "He cries at movies. And he has a very quirky way of looking at things. He always makes me laugh and I forget all the problems in the world."

Even after Hunter's ban, and their subsequent divorce, Jones remained supportive. "I still believe CJ without a doubt," she said in July 2001. "The fact that there's been a separation doesn't take away the fact that I think he's innocent and that there needs to be a major correction to the drug-testing procedure."

However, in her most recent autobiography entitled Marion Jones: Life In The Fast Lane, which was published earlier this month in the United States, Jones's views on her former husband appear to have altered. "I could see how one test, even two tests, could have gone wrong - but four separate tests had come back positive," she writes of Hunter's case. "And the levels had been so incredibly high. How could he not have known something?"

That same question was one which many at the time felt was suitable for her, too. But when news of Hunter's positive test broke on the eve of the Sydney Olympics, she stood by her man throughout a hugely awkward press conference - where, for once, Hunter was not a glowering presence at the back, but a blubbing presence at a top table which also accommodated the couple's nutritionist, Mr Victor Conte.

Jones also acknowledges in her book that she did feel Hunter's surly profile was constantly at odds with her smart media image. "He had a short fuse, and I was sick of it," she writes. "I began to think the 'Beauty and the Beast' line that so many papers used to describe us might be apt after all. I wasn't necessarily the Beauty, but CJ sure played the Beast at times."

In former times, as Jones made clear, Hunter's looming presence was entirely welcome. "I'm a little laid back, but I have the luxury of having my husband with me," she once said. "He's watching my back."

Now, however, the Beast appears to have turned. And the "total package" appears in grave danger of being undone.

Out of the running? The athletes under a cloud as the athens games approach

Dwain Chambers Britain's European 100m champion was suspended for two years in February after testing positive for designer steroid THG.

Kelli White The US winner of the world 100 and 200m was banned for two years after admitting she took a range of illegal drugs including THG.

Regina Jacobs The 40-year-old US world indoor 1500m record-holder retired last week on the eve of a hearing into her positive test for THG in 2003.

Tim Montgomery The US world 100m record-holder, and Marion Jones's partner, faces a life ban over his evidence to the Balco investigation. Chryste Gaines The US 4x100m gold medallist from the 1996 Olympics faces a life ban from USADA in the wake of the Balco investigation.

Alvin Harrison The US Olympic 400m silver medallist faces a life ban over Balco, as does world indoor 200m champion Michelle Collins.

Calvin Harrison Alvin's twin brother and the 2000 Olympic 4x400m gold medallist faces a two-year ban after a second minor violation for modafinil.

Torri Edwards Second in the US trials 100m, she is doubtful for Athens as she faces a two-year ban for the banned stimulant Nikethamide.