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Jones alone as she tries to recapture form of her golden past

28 July 2006

By Owen Slot

It seems many years since the former queen of athletics lost her crown, but the reaction of the crowd at Crystal Palace this evening will be fascinating.

The positive spin is that she has bravely fought her way through the dark times and is back. Take it or leave it, but this is the question: do you see Marion Jones these days as faded royalty or a right royal farce? A way into the debate: will she or will she not be wearing a swoosh tonight? Nike insists that she is still a Nike runner, yet hers has been a swoosh-free vest this summer. A Nike spokesperson explained: “She is out of contract, we are in negotiation.”

Yet this is the same Nike that stood by her after her extraordinary, clandestine decision to employ as her coach Charlie Francis, the self-confessed brains behind Ben Johnson’s drugs regime — and never left her out of contract. And it is the same Nike that stood by her when C. J. Hunter, her husband at the time, was banned for drugs and then, last summer, when Tim Montgomery, her former partner and the father of her son, was also charged with doping offences — and, again, never left her out of contract.

So Nike cannot be accused of a lack of faith. But, though it must be emphasised that she has never failed a drugs test, the question that the great swoosh has been asking applies to anyone in the sport: who is prepared to stand by Jones any longer?

The first answer is the big European track meets. She has run in Rome, Paris, Lausanne and now London, the places that shunned her last year. The explanation then was that she was running badly, although they also acknowledged that she brought little but negative publicity.

Yet you have to ask quite how positive the publicity is now. “The Balco inquiry (into the Californian laboratory that provided athletes with performance-enhancing drugs) has moved on,” Jon Ridgeon, who runs the Crystal Palace event, said. “Though I do accept that since booking her there has been one more story.”

Indeed there has. It was discovered last week that Trevor Graham, Jones’s former coach who took her to her three gold medals at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, is being investigated in the United States. This looks bad — yet there is so much that looks bad for her, it is a minor miracle she is still competing.

While just about avoiding being submerged beneath a sea of anecdotal doping connections, she has also had to contend with a $5 million (around £2.7 million) fraud case in which her coach, Steve Riddick, has been indicted, as has Montgomery. That makes it three dodgy coaches and two dodgy partners — at least she is still running well.

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