-- At a secluded high school track oval sheltered by a hillside, the world's fastest man, Tim Montgomery, today ran sprints under the supervision of controversial track coach Charlie Francis and temporary assistant Llewellyn Starks. The world's fastest woman, Marion Jones, Montgomery's training partner and girlfriend, was notably absent.
Deeply upset about the controversy that has swarmed around her and Montgomery since they ventured into a training relationship with Francis, Jones has in recent days refused to be seen with Francis, according to several sources.
Though today was another day of furtive moves -- Montgomery declined a request for an interview, and Francis was shooed away from Montgomery when it was believed that a photographer had been spotted on the nearby hill (there was, in fact, no photographer) -- Jones and Montgomery moved a step closer to clarifying publicly what has been a perplexing and secretive relationship with Francis, who coached Ben Johnson in 1988 when he tested positive for steroids at the Seoul Summer Games.
The couple planned to travel to Monaco as early as tonight to explain to IAAF officials that Francis will not be formally coaching or traveling with them this season, sources said. Francis is expected to act as a long-distance consultant to the couple's formal coaching staff, namely: biomechanics expert Derek Hansen, a former long jumper from Canada, and an as-yet-to-be-named assistant or co-coach.
Starks, a former LSU track star, is working only temporarily with Montgomery.
The athletes hope they have found a solution to the public relations crisis that erupted in December when they were first seen training with Francis, who was banned for life from the sport in 1991 by Athletics Canada after he admitted giving steroids to Johnson. The athletes and their advisers intend for the long-awaited explanation to placate their sponsors and satisfy European meet directors who have threatened to exclude them from competition this summer.
Francis, who lives in Toronto with his 4-year-old son and wife Angela, flew home tonight after several days in Raleigh, concluding what were expected to be his last in-person coaching sessions with the pair for some time. Francis, who has written several books on sprinting, operates his own fitness training business in Toronto.
He did not comment today.
Jones and Montgomery have been amazed and disturbed by the controversy that has surrounded their association with Francis since December, sources said. The pair has been under severe pressure from sponsors, including Nike, to sever ties with Francis. Jones, in particular, has taken the questions and scrutiny extremely hard, according to sources.
"There has been a cloud overhead," Montgomery mused aloud today. "Even when the sun's out, it's been raining on us."
Montgomery, who holds the 100-meter world record (9.78 seconds) and Jones, who won five Olympic medals at the 2000 Summer Games, are expected to answer questions at a formal news conference here by the end of the week, during which they will attempt to explain their reasons for seeking out Francis. Those reasons, according to sources, include their interest in his technical expertise and their frustration over financial squabbling with former coach Trevor Graham.
Francis released a statement last Friday saying he has neither encouraged nor condoned drug use by any athletes with whom he has consulted in the last 15 years. He also stated that Jones's and Montgomery's willingness to be seen with him provides evidence that they are drug-free, as his reputation immediately subjects them to increased scrutiny.
IAAF and U.S. track officials, however, have expressed skepticism at the sincerity of those comments, pointing out that Francis has written in articles in recent years that athletes must use performance-enhancing drugs to succeed at the elite level in track and field.
"Tim and Marion are intelligent athletes," said one U.S. track official. "It doesn't show very much intelligence to look at who they are with now."
Some U.S. track officials are also disturbed that Jones and Montgomery would choose to work with a Canadian coach -- whether he has a good reputation or a bad one -- as the move seems to suggest there is a dearth of qualified coaches in the United States.
Today, Montgomery, wearing black tights and silver Nike track spikes, looked largely undisturbed by the hovering problems. He engaged in spirited competitions with his brother, Gamar, a junior sprinter at St. Augustine's College in Raleigh. At one point, Tim Montgomery ripped off his T-shirt and flexed his muscles before bending over the starting blocks to race his brother. During a couple of breaks, the brothers and Francis and Starks chatted amiably at a corner of the track.
On other occasions, however, it seemed that Francis, wearing a black golf shirt and dark jeans, strove to keep his distance from the athletes.
The brothers received instruction from both Francis and Starks, who conferred at the side of the track for much of the workout. For the last three years, Starks, a former sprint and jumps coach at Tulane and Syracuse, has worked for Vector Sports Management, the agency that represents Jones and Montgomery.
The high school students who started a game of touch football on the grassy field at the center of the track oval during the workout seemed to have no idea that the world's fastest man was training alongside them. They stopped to watch only briefly before crossing the track to return to class.