The tragedy of Miss Jones

In her days of glory... American athlete Marion Jones holds up her five track and field medals during the 2000 Sydney Olympics.-AP

Reports that Marion Jones, who beamed out of magazine covers and billboards, and signed million-dollar deals, is broke, down to her last few thousand dollars, is another reminder that her life, so far, remains more tragedy than triumph, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Athletes, across the world, don’t always hang onto trophies. Some donate their dust-draped trophies to schools to be used at junior meets. Some junk medals in anger, sometimes in disinterest. Some sell cups because the trophy is unimportant, they own the memory of their great moment, and it is all that matters.

If John McEnroe hadn’t called to say are you crazy, Bjorn Borg might have allowed some overweight accountant to own his Wimbledon trophies. Borg swears that money problems were not the reason behind his urge to sell, but numerous athletes dispose of medals because of financial distress. In an earlier generation, an Indian Asian Games gold medallist was told by a jeweller his medals were worthless, making him feel the same. But in an eBay generation, apparently nothing is worthless.

So perhaps, one of these months, on the Internet, a few medals will be put up for sale. Olympic gold, the seller might state. Belonging to a controversial, fast, female athlete. Fast is good, but it’s the “controversial” which is what might send the bidders into a frenzy. Everyone loves celebrities and notoriety; it is the fix of this generation.

Hopefully Marion Jones never has to pawn her gold medals to pay the bills. Nevertheless, last fortnight another reminder arrived that her life, so far, remains more tragedy than triumph. Reports stated that she, who beamed out of magazine covers and billboards, and signed million-dollar deals, is broke, down to her last few thousand dollars.

In a way it is unsurprising, just another chapter in the sorry saga of Miss Jones. For the fallen, the void seems bottomless. Yet it is hard to be completely certain of the “broke” news simply because it is hard to be sure of anything about Jones.

Is she fool or cheat, her talent innate or injected? With this speediest of runners, the truth has been hard to catch and pin down.

It might be said that Jones has disappointed us, as runner and person. The grinning, graceful champion of Sydney almost seems like a fictional character of our youth. Nothing substantial has been won in the past five years except more allegations, and this is unfortunate, too, for allegations do not wash off.

We should have got over Jones by now, for she is history, and this “broke” business should have been just a small undistinguished brief in the corner of the sports pages. If she was a sweating, hairy, male shot-putter under suspicion called Yuri that would have been the case.

But we keep writing about her, keep reviewing her life, because she was so tall, so fast, so natural, so beautiful it seemed impossible she could be a failure, and then abruptly she was, an inspirational tale abruptly turned into a cautionary one. People, charmed by her, wanted her to succeed and then felt let down. Her ability to win gold, hearts, endorsements and then lose it all was staggering. Certainly it grabbed our attention.

Still, we pause while passing judgement about Jones. In conversations on her often sympathy invades, for two reasons primarily: first, the fall of a human being is rarely worthy of glee; second, she never failed a drug test and this leaves a trace element of doubt in our minds.

Last year was the only time that Jones ever tested positive, for EPO, but no sanctions were required for her back-up sample tested negative. Yet despite constantly protesting that she has never used performance enhancing drugs, Jones has never been in the clear totally, damned as she has been by circumstantial evidence.

Victor Conte, the controversial founder of BALCO, reportedly accused her of taking illegal drugs; so did her first husband, C. J. Hunter, who himself tested positive for steroids. For a while Jones worked with Charlie Francis, who was linked to Ben Johnson. Another former coach was Trevor Graham, who, perhaps in a coincidence, tutored numerous athletes who tested positive during their careers. She had a child with Tim Montgomery, who, while not testing positive for drugs, was banned for doping based on evidence gathered in the BALCO scandal. As fast as Jones was, she has not been able to flee the resulting insinuations. If there is one truth we can see, it is that Jones is guilty of poor choices, of aligning herself with people who did no good to her reputation. She became a tainted star, and tainted stars are bad for business. Sponsors and track meet promoters tiptoe away.

At the same time, legal costs have reportedly mounted as she attempts to clear her name. If you cannot run and earn, it is hard to pay the bills.

Jones is in an awkward position. She is free to run, yet she runs without freedom, carrying the weight of a planet’s scrutiny. In a way it is tragic, for by running fast she may feel she can redeem herself, yet by running fast she will only bring further questions.