ATHENS -- She reached to hand off the baton like someone reaches out in hopes of being pulled from a ledge. Marion Jones, suddenly desperate, arms flailing, wanted a hand to pull her through the most difficult race of her life, the most trying year of her career.
If she could just help win this one race, everything negative in her world would briefly disappear. All the innuendo and rumor connecting her to synthetic chemists. Her alleged bad taste in men. The slow and agonizing comeback from childbirth more than a year ago.
Everything would go away if she could just hand off that baton to Lauryn Williams on Friday night in the cooling breeze of Olympic Stadium, and watch her teammates run to a gold medal in the 4x100-meter relay.
Didn't the woman who enraptured America four years ago deserve that? Didn't the athlete who glided to those five medals in Sydney, running and jumping with so much grace, explosiveness and élan, deserve just one medal for all her personal anguish and unmet challenges this year? Couldn't the gods of the ancient Games cut her a break, just tonight?
Nuh-uh. No such thing. And if there was, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency would test them, too.
If Marion Jones learned anything about her tainted sport the past year, it's that favorites often go down -- even proud Olympic champions trying to salvage their reputation on the track instead of at a podium, professing her innocence. If Marion Jones learned anything, it's that even the things she used to be best at don't come easy anymore.
On nights like Friday in Athens, sometimes they don't come at all.
She reached to hand off that baton and no one was there, and Marion Jones's career kept careening, straight off that ledge in the most disappointing night imaginable for the biggest name in track and field.
The face of the 2000 Games took the handoff from Angela Williams after 100 meters and, though she didn't gain much ground, she had run well enough to give Lauryn Williams a chance and LaTasha Colander, the anchor, a genuine shot at gold.
An hour after she failed to medal in the long jump, where she finished fifth, Jones was trying to salvage her athletic reputation and a miserable year on the last night of her Olympic competition.
But she was unable to ever get the baton in Lauryn Williams's hands until it was too late, and Williams had already crossed the handoff zone to automatically disqualify a U.S. team counting on gold. Williams left too early, perhaps thinking Jones had the kind of speed in her tank she had displayed in Sydney, and Jones was left struggling to place the baton in her teammate's hand.
She was alone. Again.
"I said, 'Wait, wait! Stop. Hold up!' " Marion said. "But after running a 100, I don't think she could hear me."
"I heard her," Williams said, taking full blame. "I didn't react in time."
Jamaica won the gold medal, winning a race the United States had taken in four of the last five Olympics. The U.S. group had trained long and hard on the island of Crete and was hoping for a world record. They instead became another misfortune in Marion's growing number of misfortunes.
"I exceeded my wildest dreams in a negative sense," she said in a brief meeting with reporters afterward. "When I woke up, this is not the way I figured the day would end."
Someone asked how she was feeling.
"It was pretty rough," Jones said, beginning to cry. She almost began to sob, she was crying so hard, until she used her shoulder to smudge the tears away.
Maybe the reap-what-you-sow crowd was celebrating somewhere, talking about karma and fate.
Part of you figured Marion Jones needed athletic humility to make her appreciate her own physical gifts and greatness again, the same part of you that wonders if she ever really did use performance-enhancing drugs. The other part just cannot fathom this beautiful, graceful woman who dominated her sport only four years ago literally experiencing the worst night of her career.
Marion Jones, partnering in a botched handoff? Missing a medal in the long jump? It just did not seem or look right, that pained expression on her face, the struggle from someone whom you never remember struggling with anything in an athletic competition.
The night began so disappointingly for her. Before she sprinted down the runway for her sixth and final long jump, the Stars and Stripes blared from the speakers. Shawn Crawford, Bernard Williams and Justin Gatlin were receiving their medals for an American sweep in the 200 meters from the night before.
Jones joked that she "felt like an old lady" at 28 years old, being around all these younger teammates. Nowhere was the contrast more telling than when the new stars of U.S. men's track and field began competing for space and time with a supernova about to smolder in the sand.
She ran fast and leapt far, but on her last night at the Olympics -- the last night of the most impossibly turbulent year of Jones's career -- her long jump effort was short, good for only fifth place.
A cool Athenian breeze wafted through the stadium as she waved appreciatively toward the fans. Less than an hour later, her world would fall apart on the track, in a race she and her teammates won by maybe 30 meters in the qualifying heat. Marion Jones, the woman who once made it all look so easy, knows now: Nothing, absolutely nothing, can be counted on.
Reaching in vain for Lauryn Williams's hand, she never seemed farther away from Sydney.