All she had to say was, "I got beat by some very talented women. Case closed."

But Marion Jones, her invincibility a memory, could not even do that.

The reigning Olympic 100-meter champion, the breathtaking woman in the raspberry-and-navy unitard who captivated the world four years ago, sped away in an angry huff, much faster than she ran.

She finished fifth in the United States in a race she once beat the universe in. The woman whose stride used to be full of grace and elan and pull-away speed was reduced to a Nike fashion plate as she crossed the finish line at the U.S. Olympic trials Saturday afternoon.

All the drug rumors, all the accusations, flying past her quicker than LaTasha Colander, Torri Edwards, Lauryn Williams and even 37-year-old Gail Devers; they all caught Marion Jones the final 50 or 60 meters.

She lost the race and then her poise.

"When I talk, you guys have negative things to say," she said tersely. "When I don't talk, you guys have negative things to say. I'd much rather not talk and spend time with my son."

Great. Beautiful. Exactly when America's Olympic sweetheart became another track diva in the realm of Carl Lewis, no one is quite sure.

But on the afternoon she could have shown an ounce of class toward her superior competition, Marion Jones decided that when the going gets tough, the tough blame the messenger.

The scene was chaotic and bordered on small time. Whisked by a hulking bodyguard to a purring golf cart, outside the fenced-in area of the Alex G. Spanos Sports Complex here, she led a herd of scurrying fans, cameramen and writers.

No one asked her about the drug scandal enveloping her sport, the one the father of her son, Tim Montgomery, and Jones are intimately attached to. No one asked how such a swift, experienced champion could not have anything left the last half of the race.

No. Not one question was asked when she spun around and delivered her retort to all the people she believes presume her guilty, rather than innocent.

How sad, no? This is what happens when you surround yourself with people who tell you what you want to hear instead of what you need to hear.

Say this for Marion finishing a mystifying fifth in the 100, her favorite event: Either the woman is clean or she should demand back that $7,350 check written to a BALCO "nutritionist" with her name on it.

The track people will tell you she got out of the blocks slowly, ran straight up, had nothing left after 40 meters. The layman? Marion Jones got her doors blown off. The 2000 Olympic champion could not beat four of her own countrywomen.

The bigger concern now has to be whether she gets to Athens at all. The long jump bronze medalist in Sydney, she has not jumped well for a while and if she cannot win, place or show in the 100, what makes anyone believe she can come close in the 200 meters next weekend?

Herman Frazier, the U.S. track team leader, was as surprised as anyone: "As always, you look for her to hit that gear and pull away from everybody else. That gear just wasn't there."

Before the gun went off, it was still hard to figure who was in Lane 6 Saturday afternoon: The persecuted golden girl from Sydney with a worse taste in men than Sunny van Bulow. Or an elusive drug cheat, whom the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is building a strong case against.

She had qualified in 11.14 seconds, the same time she ran in the final. She almost teased the crowd as her semifinal heat ended, slowing slightly at the tape, further driving a wedge between her legions and those who believe Marion's need for speed has driven her to sinister places.

She made you feel torn. Before her performance Saturday night, her style, her fluid, languid frame, that easygoing smile and demeanor amid the drug-use accusations worked for Jones. You wondered how someone who hired a former Clinton spin doctor to help with her tainted image can possibly be anything but natural.

But then the doubt crept in. You began to squint suspiciously, to wonder why any organization would pursue the biggest star in women's track and field if it did not have something solid to bank on.

From the start, out of the blocks, she was sandwiched.

In Lane 4, BALCO, the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative at the center of sports' most notorious drug scandal. Six athletes USADA wants banned here -- including Montgomery, the world's fastest human -- have not denied their connection to the company.

In Lane 5, gaining, the people in white lab coats trying to clean up the sport and give their infantile agency some credence in the Great Steroid War.

And somewhere on the outside, a skeptical public, wanting and needing to know: Is Marion for real or is she juiced?

I still don't know, but this much was clear: On a night when Marion Jones could have elicited sympathy -- or at least shown her opponents the proper respect they deserved -- she went off and made it all about her.

America's Sweetheart became another me-me track diva, in 11.14 seconds flat.

The amazing thing is, amid all the steroid talk, she was still the sport's human face. Even leading up to the final, fans rooted for her like they root for the pretty girl at Wimbledon. She was given leeway because she already ran into living rooms four years ago, delivering all those medals, all that physical beauty.

If bulked-up behemoths like Barry Bonds are the snakeheads who need to be eradicated because they are ruining the fish population, Marion became the harp seal -- protected by environmentalists worried she will be clubbed.

Unlike other elite athletes accused of steroid use, she got the benefit of the doubt. And now this, a pouty end to a miserable afternoon.

Before she was whisked away by handlers, a distraught young boy of maybe 12 almost jumped in her path. He looked like the modern-day version of the boy in "Eight Men Out," who tells Shoeless Joe Jackson of the infamous Black Sox, "Say it ain't so, Joe, say it ain't so."

"What happened, Marion?" the boy asked.

Four years after she made us smile and cheer her on, your guess is as good as anybody's, kid.