When a star becomes an outcast

SHE was the biggest star in athletics at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Gunning for an unprecedented five gold medals, Marion Jones had the fans mobbing her and the media flocking to her. Her beauty and poise, not to speak of her sprinting ability, captivated audiences and projected her as a role model for the sport itself.

BALCO changed all that. The San Francisco laboratory, at the centre of an investigation by US Federal agencies, was accused of supplying banned drugs to a number of athletes including Jones and her boyfriend, Tim Montgomery.

By the time the Athens Olympics came around, she was struggling to keep her reputation intact. She failed to make the US Olympic team in the 100 metres, amidst speculation that the scandal might eventually force her out of the Athens Games. She finally competed just in the long jump, finishing fifth. Tongues wagged more than ever before.

Now, more than a year after her name was dragged into the BALCO controversy, Marion Jones is finding that she is unwelcome at major track meets in Europe including the Golden League circuit. She was shunned by most of the top European meetings in 2004 as well. And to think that she used to command an appearance fee of around 100,000 dollars! Observers feel that there could be a real danger of her Nike deal, worth three million dollars a year, not being renewed at the end of this year.

Her lawyer has urged the international federation (IAAF) not to approve meets that are refusing to accept her. However, the IAAF has pleaded its helplessness. Invitations are strictly organisers' business.

But is it fair to keep Jones out just because of suspicions? This is the question that is bothering anti-doping campaigners, independent observers, athletes and critics alike. There is no unanimity of views here. On one side is the right of an athlete who is eligible to compete; on the other the interests of the organisers who want to avoid negative publicity.

The United State Anti Doping Agency (USADA) that has suspended or proceeded against several athletes the past year has not yet brought forward any charge against Jones. And yet, no one will be able to completely ignore the `leaks' that have come from a Grand Jury testimony.

With the BALCO scandal bringing out the murkier side of American sport, there is a newfound enthusiasm in that country to `stay clean'. The `clean sport' bill, expected to get Congressional approval before the end of the year, envisages a uniform anti-doping policy encompassing US pro leagues, on the lines prescribed by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA).

No one is willing to pin Jones down, though. "I think it's unfortunate," WADA chief Richard Pound was quoted as saying of the boycott of Jones by European meet organisers. "If there has been no determination made of a doping offence, it does not seem fair that she should be excluded. It kind of gives the impression that somebody has prejudged it."

Even as she is fighting what looks a losing battle against organisers and promoters, Jones has also filed a 25-million-dollar defamation suit against BALCO founder Victor Conte for alleging that he had supplied banned drugs to her.

With former husband, dope-tainted shot putter C. J. Hunter, making allegations against her and Montgomery facing life-ban for steroid use, Jones finds herself pushed into a corner even without a positive test against her name. But she has fought on, though on the track her performances have lost the spark of old.

Back in India, another athlete, who had been involved in a doping scandal, has quietly shown the kind of form that has raised hopes. Sunita Rani, with nothing much to back her up for the last two seasons, ran an impressive distance race in Patiala the other day. But sadly she, too, is keen to prove her `critics wrong'.

Critics cannot come up with positive reports on urine samples at accredited laboratories! Thanks to a complete hash of documentation by the Seoul laboratory, Sunita was reprieved after being stripped of her medals in the Busan Asian Games following steroid positives.

Neither that incident nor the scandal that broke during the Athens Olympics seems to have put a halt to doping in Indian sport, athletics in particular.

Signing declarations and codes will mean little if the Union Sports Ministry and the Sports Authority of India continue to shut their eyes to happenings around the country and inside coaching camps.

The US is learning it the hard way. The quicker we understand the implications the better it will be for Indian sport.