Four years ago, the only controversy surrounding Marion Jones grew out of her brash prediction that she would win five gold medals at the 2000 Games in Sydney. Jones, who eventually won three gold and two bronze medals, was considered the Olympic ideal in a media-saturated age: She was not only swifter and stronger, but also poised, well-spoken, graceful and attractive. She seemed to have the gift of generating headlines without creating bad news.
But as Jones prepared for Friday's early rounds of the 100 meters at the eight-day U.S. Olympic track and field trials, she is dogged by far weightier questions than how many medals she will win. For weeks, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has been investigating her for possible drug violations in connection with the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) scandal.
The allegations have frustrated her, possibly blemished her once dazzling image and arguably affected her performances this season.
"I want to compete . . . more important, I want to retain one of my most treasured attributes: My reputation," Jones said during a recent news conference in San Francisco. "If the truth is told, my name will be cleared, and I can move on with my life."
Added Jones: "To have this unnecessary distraction in my life is really not fair to me in the least. If an organization or person tries to end my career, I will do the necessary steps to make sure my name is clear."
Should Jones slide seamlessly through the trials as expected, placing in the top three in the 100 and 200 meters and long jump, she could, with a large dose of good fortune, once again be in position to go after five gold medals. That's assuming, of course, that she would be selected by U.S. coaches for the 4x100 and 4x400 relay teams. It's also assuming USADA's investigation does not blossom into concrete charges.
Jones seems to be taking neither for granted. She threatened to sue USADA if it tried to ban her from the Games, and she said she would not pressure U.S. coaches to include her on any relay team.
Once she gets to Athens, however, one thing is certain: In whatever event she competes, she will be going for gold.
"I don't train as hard as I do, or as long as I do, to get third place," Jones said during a mid-May news conference in New York. "We're not talking about little kids here. . . . I go to the Olympics to win, to cross the finish line first or to jump the furthest. If that doesn't happen, I'm disappointed."
Jones has taken a number of highly publicized steps to distance herself from the drug controversy, including submitting to a lie detector test in her attorney's office, requesting the release of her BALCO grand jury testimony and challenging USADA to bring forth its charges at a public hearing. Her five-person public relations team issued information on how many times Jones has been drug-tested since 1997 and prepared a diagram of her progression in the 100, attempting to show that her gradual progress -- and occasional setbacks -- do not correspond to the marks of an athlete using drugs.
Whether those measures have helped establish her innocence or, instead, cemented her connection to the scandal is unclear.
"It's very unfortunate for everybody concerned that there is a great deal of speculation regarding one of the most prominent athletes in the Olympic movement worldwide," U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Jim Scherr said, noting that he was not aware of any negative public comments from the USOC or USADA.
"I have great confidence in Marion's individual and personal abilities to deal with challenges, and I'm sure she has a great team around her," USA Track and Field CEO Craig Masback said, adding that USATF hoped "that those are guilty will be punished and those that are innocent will be allowed to move on in the sport."
Since the previous Olympic trials four years ago in Sacramento, much has happened to Jones: She stood by her former husband, shot putter C.J. Hunter, when he tested positive for steroids; divorced Hunter; formed a brief coaching alliance with a drug-tainted coach, Charlie Francis; had a baby with the world record holder in the 100, Tim Montgomery; and supported him when he was among the four athletes charged this spring.
Whether her run of unfortunate connections have been the result of blind bad luck or bad judgment has been the subject of much debate.
World Anti-Doping Agency Chairman Dick Pound recently said about Jones, "You've got to be very careful leaping to guilt by association, but there's an awful lot of smoke there." International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge declared her "technically innocent" but called her association with Francis "damn stupid" in an interview with a London newspaper. Jones's public-relations team offered blistering responses to both statements when they were made.
Though Jones has tried to keep her focus on competing, her results in recent months have suggested the distractions have taken their toll. Her best legal time in the 100 was an 11.04-second finish in Kingston, Jamaica, in May, fifth best in the world this year. She finished fifth in a 100 in Eugene, Ore., in June and fourth in a 200 race in Walnut, Calif., in April. She has won two of three long jump competitions she has entered.
"At this point, the Marion Jones now won't beat the Marion Jones in 2000, but by the time Sacramento comes around and Athens comes around, I think this Marion will give the old Marion a run for her money," Jones said in mid-May.
Jones has been training for the last year with longtime Texas assistant Dan Pfaff, whom she hired after ending a brief -- and much criticized -- alliance with Francis, the former coach of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who tested positive for steroids at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. Pfaff was her first full-time coach after Jones left Trevor Graham in the fall of 2002.
"I think things are working," Jones said. "It's been a 360-degree change since when I was with Trevor."
Montgomery, for whom her son Monty is named, has been the most publicly scrutinized of the four U.S. athletes USADA recently charged, and his reputation took a huge hit when his testimony before the BALCO grand jury -- in which he admitted using a designer steroid, human growth hormone and a masking drug -- was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle.
In a statement, however, Jones stood solidly by Montgomery, much like she did at the 2000 Summer Games when it was revealed that Hunter had tested positive several times for the steroid nandrolone. Despite that revelation, Jones managed to leave the Games with five medals and her reputation intact.
This summer will show just how much of a battering she can take.
"I don't think I've lost my reputation," Jones said in New York. "I know I've always been drug free . . . and I will continue to be."