Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Jones suddenly appears vulnerable

By Rob Gloster
The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Once nearly invincible, Marion Jones is becoming more beatable with each event at the U.S. Olympic track trials.

Jones, who won an unprecedented five medals at the 2000 Sydney Games and had talked of trying to match that haul in Athens, could go home empty handed - if she goes to the Summer Games at all.

She won the 100 four years ago. This time she didn't qualify. She won the 200 four years ago. She'll try to qualify in that event starting Friday, but her stamina is in question after she seemed to fade toward the end of the 100.

And she was a bronze medalist in the long jump in 2000. On Monday night, Jones could do no better than seventh in the trials' qualifying round - in an event in which only one other American has reached the Olympic qualifying standard this year.

The adulation that used to surround her is gone, while suspicions of drug use have clouded her career. In what should be her prime years as an athlete, the 28-year-old Jones now seems to receive as much sympathy as awe.

She never smiled or showed much expression during her three jumps Monday. She never seemed to soar. As in the 100 two days earlier, she seemed to lack an extra gear.

Jones strode across the field after her jumps, hiding under a white cap as she was escorted by a meet official. She ducked under a tent and disappeared under the stands, avoiding the "mixed zone" where reporters awaited her.

She looked like a woman under duress, and there's ample reason for that.

Four years after being the golden girl of the Sydney Games and a year after triumphantly announcing she was returning to the sport just weeks after giving birth, she is being probed for possible drug use and her performances have plummeted.

"I don't know what she's going through right now. I don't envy her at all with all the distractions that she has out there," said Grace Upshaw, the only other U.S. long jumper who has met the qualifying standard this season.

"I think she's a great athlete, and she's a mom," Upshaw said Tuesday. "That's what blows my mind. She had a baby and she's out here being competitive, and I think that's awesome."

Jones' troubles began in the winter of 2003, when she was a few months pregnant. She and her boyfriend, 100 world record holder Tim Montgomery, had an acrimonious split with coach Trevor Graham and for a short time worked with disgraced coach Charlie Francis - who supplied steroids to Ben Johnson in the 1980s.

After getting pressure from world track officials, Jones and Montgomery severed their ties to Francis. Her reputation seemed intact, especially in the glow of her new motherhood last summer.

But then the BALCO steroid scandal unfolded. Jones and Montgomery both testified last fall before a grand jury probing the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative.

Montgomery, who failed to qualify for the Olympics in the 100 on Sunday, has been charged by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency with steroid use and faces a lifetime ban if found guilty. Jones has not been charged by USADA, but remains under investigation.

Jones and Montgomery both repeatedly have denied using banned drugs.

But Jones' reputation is in tatters and her career is threatened. Her ex-husband and ex-coach both are talking to federal agents in the BALCO case.

In early June, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said although Jones was "technically innocent," she showed poor judgment in becoming involved with people linked to doping scandals.

U.S. hurdler Allen Johnson came to Jones' defense Tuesday.

"I feel it's an unfortunate situation that a lot of people find themselves in," he said. "It's not fair to drag somebody through the mud because of who they fall in love with."

Jones' troubles have continued on the track - and the field - at the Olympic trials.

Though Jones was one of 12 competitors who advanced to the long jump final on Thursday night and remains likely to make the U.S. team, she failed by a quarter-inch to reach the automatic qualifying mark, and got worse with each of her three jumps.

Jones surpassed 22 feet in high school, and won Olympic bronze with a leap of 22-8 1/2 four years ago, but could do no better than 20-11 3/4 on Monday night.

She has the numbers on her side in the long jump. Though her qualification is no longer certain, it would take an extraordinary series of events to deprive her of a place on the U.S. squad.

Under qualifying rules, Jones provisionally can make the Olympic team even if she fails to place among the top three Thursday night. That's because only she and Upshaw have Olympic qualifying marks this season.

So, even if Jones finishes last among the 12 competitors in Thursday's final, she'll still be named to the squad if no other jumper has reached the Olympic qualifying mark.

But, in that scenario, the top two finishers Thursday still could bump her from the team if they get the qualifying mark of 21 feet, 11 3/4 inches by Aug. 9.

It's a shockingly vulnerable position for a woman who once was nearly unbeatable in the sprints and was among the world's best in the long jump.

"She's a great athlete. She's coming back from a pregnancy. She's got a new coach. She has other things that she's dealing with," Craig Masback, chief executive of USA Track & Field, said Tuesday. "This is a sport where you want to do your best. As someone who's struggling to achieve their best, you feel for her."

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