Track and field in the U.S. was a mess by the time of the
national outdoor championships in Indianapolis last June. Major
meets had been canceled, support from sponsors was dwindling,
and less than two weeks earlier the ballyhooed Michael
Johnson-Donovan Bailey match race had bombed spectacularly. In
the early evening of June 12 the stadium at Indiana
University-Purdue University in Indianapolis was so empty that
one reporter thought of trying to discern if every spectator was
in fact credentialed as an athlete, coach or journalist. Even
the weather was funereal, as fierce black thunderheads crowded
the twilight sky. It felt as if the flags should be at half-mast.
Then, like an alarm piercing the stillness, Marion Jones shook
the sport from its torpor. A 21-year-old former high school
track phenom, Jones had spent most of the previous four years
playing basketball at North Carolina, letting her track talents
stagnate. On this night she ran a quarterfinal heat of the
women's 100 meters in 10.98 seconds and then scorched a 10.92 in
the semis, becoming one of the fastest women in U.S. history.
More thrilling than her times was her style. She was youth and
speed and joy wrapped together, a young woman just starting to
explore her talent. Before the meet was finished, Jones would
win both the 100, in 10.97, and the long jump (left), at 22'9".
Over the course of a dazzling summer she would take gold medals
in the 100 and the 4x100 relay at the World Championships and
dominate the sprints on the European circuit.
Track and field in the U.S. won't die--it will always have its
hard-core supporters, its track nuts--but it could disappear
into the black hole of the public's consciousness, surfacing
quadrennially for the Olympic Games and then fading again. Think
skiing. Think swimming. Only stars can keep a sport commercially
alive, and track's are getting old. Marion Jones is young and
fast. She is hope in pinspikes and a unitard. And it never did
rain on that warm June night.