Word got out quietly in the spring of 1998. Marion Jones's agent,
Charley Wells, sidled up to a writer doing a feature on Jones and
said, "You know, we're going for five gold medals in Sydney." At
the 1997 world championships Jones had won the 100 meters,
stunning track insiders with the swiftness of her return to form
after three years of concentrating on basketball at North
Carolina. It was assumed that come Sydney, the versatile Jones
would try to match the performances of Jesse Owens in '36 and
Carl Lewis in '84 by winning gold medals in the 100, 200, long
jump and 4x100-relay. That assumption was wrong. "We're going for
the four-by-400 too," Wells said.
The writer recounted Wells's declaration to Jones. It was true,
she said, and shrugged. No biggie. To a young woman who had run
200 meters faster than any other female high schooler in history,
who had earned a 1992 Olympic relay berth at age 16 (and turned
it down for various reasons) and who as a freshman point guard
had helped lead the Tar Heels' women's basketball team to the
national title, the extraordinary was commonplace and her
reaction to it Tigeresque. "That's my goal," she said. "To do
something nobody has done before."
No woman has attempted to win five track and field gold medals at
one Olympics. In 1948, Fanny Blankers-Koen won four, and 40 years
later Florence Griffith Joyner nearly won four but fell just
short on the anchor leg of the 4x400 (file this away). Five golds
is the career record for a female U.S. Olympian, and Jones
proposes to equal it in a span of nine days. Some very talented
people were, and remain, amazed at the breadth of her ambition.
"Why go for all five now?" asks Michael Johnson, who won two
golds in the 1996 Games. "She's an amazing athlete, but why not
get the 100, 200 and four-by-one now, and then come back in 2004
and get the 400, long jump and four-by-four?"
Why not? "Because that's not her, not even close," says Curtis
Frye, Jones's sprint coach during her dalliances with track at
North Carolina. "Marion Jones is a genius, and you don't restrict
genius, you applaud it."
This is a fair admonition. At 24, Jones is the second-fastest
woman in history at 100 and 200 meters (behind Flo-Jo), a
dangerous--if inconsistent--long jumper and a voracious competitor.
"The girl is nasty, period," says Maurice Greene, the men's
world-record holder in the 100.
As soon as Jones began speaking about winning five golds, she
became the hot topic of pre-Olympic buzz. Five, five, five!
That's all she heard. Jones was like Mark Spitz in 1972 or Lewis
in '84, a superstar-in-waiting, but in a world with vastly more
media. Her image suffered slightly when she went to the '99 world
championships in Seville seeking four gold medals (she didn't
participate in the 4x400) in a Sydney dry run but got just one
gold, finishing third in the long jump, injuring her back in the
200 and dropping out of the 4x100 relay. She flew home without
speaking to reporters, creating the impression that she was
immature and that her handlers--including her 300-pound husband,
world shot put champion C.J. Hunter--were overmatched by the
demands of her celebrity.
Nike, with which Jones has a seven-figure endorsement contract,
then did something for her that it had never done for an athlete
of her stature. It arranged for her to be represented by a public
relations firm, Bragman Nyman Cafarelli of Beverly Hills. The
Swoosh People didn't want any more bad press for this smart,
attractive female whom they viewed as nearly limitless in her
potential to sell their goods. Together the shoe company and the
p.r. agency have managed Jones's time and polished her image,
taking full advantage of her telegenic appeal.
All that is left is for Jones to win five events. Can she? You
bet. Will she? Consider: Including qualifying, she has to run 10
races and long jump as many as nine times. On Sept. 27 she has to
run two heats of the 200 and qualify in the long jump. On Sept.
30 she has to run two relay finals less than two hours apart.
Cool Sydney evenings will help, but fatigue will be a factor. A
look at each event:
100 meters--Jones hasn't lost a 100 in nearly three years, and her
barely wind-aided 10.68 this year in Stockholm is the fastest
non-altitude, non-Flo-Jo time on record. If you're looking for a
chink in the armor here, look at her Aug. 11 race in Zurich, in
which she started terribly and, even after catching Inger Miller
at 50 meters, didn't draw away, winning by only .01. "Marion has
been beating everybody," says five-time Olympian Merlene Ottey of
Jamaica, "but this is the 100 at the Olympics. One mistake, and
anybody wins." Don't expect Jones to make that mistake.
200 meters--Jones says this is her favorite race, but her
non-altitude PR is just .01 better than Miller's. Though Jones
beat Miller easily at the U.S. trials, Miller has been getting
sharper since then. Look for the deuce to be a very, very close
Long jump--Jones's form--a choppy run-up followed by a jarring
landing--makes long jump aficionados cringe, and she finished
fifth at an Aug. 25 meet in Brussels. Still, since Jones leaped
23'11 3/4" in 1998, no woman has jumped farther, and Jones has
beaten most of her rivals at least once. She will be in the mix
throughout the competition and could pop a huge leap and win.
Relays--If the U.S. gets the baton around in the 4x100, it's a
lock. Case closed. The 4x400--Jones's final event--is more dicey.
Germany and Russia will field solid teams. Plus, when Jones gets
the stick (probably not on the anchor leg, which she has ceded to
veteran Jearl Miles Clark), she will be running on fumes.
In the end the difference between success and failure for Jones
will probably be infinitesimal: a centimeter in the long jump, .1
of a second in the four-by-four or the 200. A lesson to consider:
When she was a college freshman, running spring track with a
basketball body, Jones injured an ankle walking her bike down a
set of stadium steps. Frye figured she was out of the NCAA meet,
but Jones startled him by limping to a sixth-place finish in the
200 and a second in the long jump. Afterward Jones's mother,
Marion Toler, approached Frye and told him, "Never underestimate
The warning still stands, and that's no hype.