The Devil And Miss Jones

published November 18, 2010

Marion Jones wants you to understand.

“[With] elite athletes, you trust your inner circle, you trust your coaches, you trust the people that are around you,” she told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show Monday night.  “And at that time I trusted the people who are around me and I didn’t ask questions, and that was my fault, I didn’t ask questions.”

Jones was promoting her new book, On The Right Track, which describes the bad decisions that led to her returning her five medals from the Sydney Olympics and serving six months in federal prison in Texas.

It is Jones’s mission to help people avoid the kind of mistakes she made, urging them to choose their associates more carefully, and to take a moment and think before speaking or acting rashly in the heat of the moment.

“In 2003 there was this BALCO [Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative] scandal, and I was asked by federal investigators to come and answer questions about whatever I might have known about it,” she said.  “And when I was shown this performance-enhancing drug… after a few moments I recognized that it was what I had been given, and in the blink of an eye I made the decision to lie about it.  I lied about the use of performance-enhancing drugs, and of course it’s against the law to lie to a federal investigator.”

It was a decision made in an instant, she says, one that she regrets, one that is the basis for her “Take A Break” speeches to school groups, documented in John Singleton’s film for ESPN’s “30 For 30” series entitled “Push Pause.”  If only she had pushed pause at that moment…

…or three years later, in 2006, when she was questioned by federal investigators in relation to a check fraud scheme involving her former boyfriend Tim Montgomery, father of her first child.  The investigators assured Jones that they knew she was not a part of the scheme, but she had endorsed one of the checks, and to “stay as far away from it as possible,” as she writes in her book, she denied any knowledge of the check or Montgomery’s involvement.

Three years would seem like enough of a pause to avoid making the same mistake.

“You make good choices when you hang with good people,” Jones told students at Skyline High School in Dallas during the Singleton film, “and when you hang with losers, you’re going to make mistakes.”

At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, where Jones won gold in the 100 and 200 meters and 4 x 400 relay, along with bronze in the long jump and 4 x 100, her husband, shot putter C. J. Hunter, withdrew after the international governing body for track and field announced he had tested positive for steroids four times prior to the Games.  Hunter claimed he was unaware that the substance, nandrolone, was in a nutritional supplement he was taking; he retired in March 2001 rather than contest the IAAF’s findings.

Tim Montgomery admitted to Bryant Gumbel in 2008 that he knew the supplements he was taking before the 2000 Olympics contained banned substances.  “I knew.  I’m not going to lie.  I knew.”

Jones’s coach as she rose to stardom in the track world was Trevor Graham of Sprint Capitol USA; the book Game of Shadows details how Victor Comte of BALCO shipped illegal drugs to Graham, and supplied Jones with steroids, insulin, growth hormone, EPO, and “the Clear.”  Graham has since been banned for life from involvement in international track and field events.  Hunter told federal investigators that Jones took “the Clear” orally, and other drugs by injection.

In her book, she says she took a substance she was told was flaxseed oil.  She told Jon Stewart she had no idea she had taken anything improper, at least until 2003, when the feds confronted her.  Really?  Her husband’s tests and the initial stories about BALCO didn’t make her suspicious?

“For a good part of my athletic career,” Jones writes, “I lived in a bubble, far removed from friends and family and following bad advice.  I could see the outside world, but I wasn’t part of it, because I allowed the men in my life to do everything for me.  It was so bad that practically everything I did was based on them.”

Here’s where the Redemption Tour bothers me: Is this an acceptable answer in the 21st century in America?  If you’re not willing to give Barry Bonds a pass – for identical claims about “flaxseed oil” – why give one to Marion Jones?  Because, as a woman, she would naturally do whatever the men in her life told her to do?

I don’t buy the notion of Jones as the pawn of a series of Svengalis.

I also don’t accept the idea that her fatal mistake – made in a split second — was in lying to the investigators.  She wants sympathy for losing so much in her fall from the pedestal, yet seems not to consider that her rise may have been illegitimate in the first place, fueled by the drugs she took.

She was the glamorous star of the 2000 Games, Nike’s chosen athlete, attention drawn by her quest for five golds.

“I don’t think she needed to take drugs,” Olympic hurdling champ Edwin Moses told Singleton.  “I don’t know whether or not she would have been able to go to the Olympic Games and run the 100 meters and the 200 and then long jump and then run relays as well —  I don’t know whether she could have, her body could withstand all that, but she definitely could have won two to three gold medals without steroids.”

We’ll never know.  What we do know is that she made a long series of bad decisions, not a few.  She made them, she lied about them, and she kept lying publicly about them until the day she pled guilty and apologized on the courthouse steps.  Edwin Moses believes “she is a good person… she’s done a lot for a lot of kids, and she’s done a lot to help other people.”

I don’t doubt she wants to.  I am skeptical that she really understands her own responsibility for all she did, and then all that was done to her.

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