If we think it's strange that Marion Jones has been here all week but not competing, we probably can't even imagine how annoyed she must be. Don't bore me recounting the absences of Torri Edwards, Kelli White or even Greek goddess Katerina Thanou. And trust me, nobody is sitting around sulking over the fact that Tim Montgomery didn't qualify. The Summer Olympics already have a big winner in swimmer Michael Phelps. But the Games don't yet have a star, an instantly recognizable, Olympic-tested, big box office, crossover-appeal, controversial, halogen-bright star, the way Carl Lewis was in '84, or Greg Louganis and Flo-Jo were in '88.
Jones is right here, smack in the middle of Athens, and we miss her.
Four years ago in Sydney, she competed in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the long jump and two relays, and won three gold medals and two bronze medals. In these Games, she's still only 28 years old. We got our first glimpse of her Wednesday, 13 days into a 17-day event. She's a long jumper now, and she'll compete in one relay. That's it, that's the list, unless she's named to a second relay team. It's not enough, not for her and certainly not for anybody who loves track and field, or simply the big event. "It's difficult to go out every day and just train, to be out there with no other athletes . . . while rounds are going on in the 100 and the 200," Jones said after qualifying for the finals on her second jump. "It takes a different type of focus than I've ever had before."
She never before had to come back after pregnancy and giving birth, never before had to deal with allegations that she has used performance-enhancing drugs, never before had to hear that her ex-husband, a shot-putting lug disgraced by his own positive drug test, is implicating her. Asked if these last few days of competition are entirely about winning a medal, any medal, Jones paused for several seconds and said: "It's about coming out and doing your best in the midst of a helluva year; you can take that any way you want to. . . . It's about coming out and doing your best in the midst of mass chaos."
She fouled on her first jump Wednesday night, then qualified for the finals on her second one. "The first jump," she said, "I was too pumped up. The second one, I just took a safe jump. . . . I've got all this energy built up since Sacramento [site of the Olympic trials]. Perhaps you're seeing the residual of that. I was thinking, 'One jump. One jump and I'll be back home to catch the 200 [final].' "
She is more aware of everything that happens in competition now. One would imagine a year of mass chaos might make her appreciate everything associated with the Olympics this time around. The American sports public has grown accustomed to its track stars having long runs in the 1980s and 1990s, from Edwin Moses to Jackie Joyner-Kersee to Carl Lewis to Gail Devers. We presumed, perhaps incorrectly, that the 2000 Sydney Games were the official introduction to a long, medal-filled career for Jones. Perhaps she did the same. "It's been a number of weeks now [since Sacramento] and the past few days have been difficult," Jones said at one point.
"But I feel that now, it's my moment. When I walked into the stadium today I made sure to take it all in. . . . In the back of your mind you compare Olympics. I wanted to see how it compared to Sydney."
An electrifying victory in the 400-meter hurdles by Greece's Fani Halkia came during the long jump qualifying. "I was surprised by the crowd," but not by its reaction to one of its own winning gold, Jones said. "They were into the spirit of competition. It was a good crowd and a knowledgeable crowd. They embraced every single athlete."
There was a lot to take in, to be sure. There was Veronica Campbell of Jamaica holding off 18-year-old Californian Allyson Felix to win the 200 meters. "Sign of the future," Renaldo Nehemiah, the former great hurdler and now Felix's agent, said as she left the track. "She's young, she's talented. And she was running against some seasoned sprinters."
There was Allen Johnson, the Northern Virginian and Olympic record holder in the 110-meter hurdles, apparently gathering himself after a terrible start in that event, only to crash into the ninth hurdle, forcing a headfirst dive into the 10th. "It's only the second time I've ever fallen in competition," Johnson said.
And there was Halkia blasting past the field, including Sheena Johnson from Gar-Field High and American Brenda Taylor, en route to one of the great moments for Greece this week.
Thing is, most things that happen at the track these days carry some degree of suspicion. Half the time, maybe more, it's other competitors expressing that suspicion. It's the new way of the world, like beefed-up security. You see, Halkia has cut approximately four seconds off her time in a year. Asked about Halkia's gold medal performance immediately after the race, Taylor said: "Can I plead the Fifth on that? She came out of nowhere to run an Olympic record? That's pretty amazing."
We don't really know what to believe anymore about who is clean and who's dirty. All we know for certain when we enter the track and field venue is who we want to see do the running and jumping and throwing. It's nice to see 22-year-old Justin Gatlin and 20-year-old Lauryn Williams and 20-year-old Jeremy Wariner, all young Americans who may in short time boost interest in track and field during non-Olympic years.
But sometimes, you want to look at the marquee and see a name you know, and have the promise of seeing a great athlete perform while in their prime. We saw a precious few seconds of that with Marion Jones on Wednesday night, and sadly for her and for us there won't be much of a meal to follow this appetizer.