No woman ran fast more often than Marion Jones. Once a precocious teen sprinter--she nearly made the U.S. Olympic team in 1992 as a high school junior--Jones turned professional in 1997 and began one of the greatest runs of dominance in track and field history. Over a four-year period she turned in 12 of the 20 best women's 100-meter times ever. She ran faster than any woman other than the late Florence Griffith Joyner (though she was far more consistent than Flo-Jo), and in the 2000 Olympics she won five medals, three of them gold. Jones had numerous endorsement contracts, and European meet promoters paid her $75,000 to $100,000 to run a single race. She made enough money (an estimated $3 million a year at her peak) to build a mansion in North Carolina, where she had gone to college. Life was good indeed.
It is no longer so good. Heading into this weekend's USA Track and Field Championships in Carson, Calif., Jones, 29, is running barely faster than she did as a high school freshman 15 years ago. She is training under her fourth coach in three years, fighting drug allegations, enduring exclusion from certain European meets and struggling to return to form two years after giving birth. Unfortunately for Jones, says Renaldo Nehemiah, the former world-record hurdler who is now an agent representing track athletes, "the other sprinters don't fear her anymore. They not only want to beat her, they want to annihilate her, because that's what she did to them."
Jones's decline became evident last year. She made the Olympic team in only the long jump and the 4√ó100-meter relay and left Athens without a medal. This year she has run six races and been unimpressive in all of them. On April 17 she finished last in a six-woman field in the 400 meters at the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif.; her time of 55.03 would have been good only for seventh place in this year's California state high school championships. A week later she ran a dawdling split in the 4√ó200 at the Kansas Relays. Since then she has competed only in the 100, with times ranging from a pedestrian 11.28 seconds to a glacial 11.67--more than a second slower than her personal best of 10.65, run in 1998. She is ranked No. 25 in the world at the distance and No. 10 among U.S. women.
"I'm sure she's embarrassed," says Allen Johnson, 1996 gold medalist and four-time world champion in the 110-meter hurdles. (Jones declined to comment for this story.) "She's used to winning. People are used to seeing her win. And she's not winning."
If the story were only this--a gifted athlete flaming out early--it would be merely sad. But other issues make Jones's tale more complex and throw a shadow across everything she has achieved. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, her ex-husband, shot-putter C.J. Hunter, told investigators building the case against BALCO--the Burlingame, Calif., lab that federal authorities say was at the center of a ring distributing the steroid THG and other performance-enhancing drugs--that he injected Jones with banned substances and watched as she injected herself.
BALCO owner Victor Conte, the central figure in the government's case, told ABC's 20/20 in December that he created and supervised Jones's steroid program for more than a year, beginning in the weeks before the 2000 Olympics. Tim Montgomery, Jones's boyfriend of nearly three years and the father of their son, faces a possible lifetime ban for steroid use, pending a ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Jones and her lawyers met in May 2004 with officials from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and left under the impression that she was under investigation, according to one of the lawyers, Rich Nichols. (Travis Tygart, USADA's general counsel, would not confirm that Jones is--or was--under investigation.)
Jones has repeatedly denied using banned substances and has never tested positive. Last week Nichols asserted, "Marion is clean. She's always been clean. And she'll fight to the death to prove it."
Jones has taken legal action in her defense. She has filed a $25 million defamation suit against Conte for his comments on ABC, and another suit, for what Nichols calls breach of contract, against Dan Pfaff, who coached her and Montgomery from early 2003 into 2004. Pfaff, who signed a five-year deal but worked with the pair for only one year before being let go, filed a counterclaim against Jones; the two sides have agreed to go to arbitration.
Jones's long list of endorsements has shrunk to just one: Nike. She's on the second of two long-term contracts with the company (which declined to discuss details of her deal), but she's no longer one of the firm's cosseted stars, as she was in 2000, when her account was handed to Los Angeles public-relations executive Lewis Kay, whose clients included LL Cool J and Rebecca Romijn.
Jones has little recourse but to try to prove her innocence by performing clean at a high level. She trains in Hampton, Va., under former Olympian Steve Riddick, who was Montgomery's coach at Norfolk State. Jones has looked sluggish and uninterested in her races this year, but Riddick promises a major improvement in her performances soon. "She's a champion," he says. "People need to give her a chance to get up off the carpet. She's going to shock people at nationals. She had a baby, and people turned their backs on her."
Jones hasn't rebounded from giving birth nearly as well as many other top sprinters--Olympic gold medalists Wilma Rudolph (1960) and Valerie Brisco (1984) excelled on the track within two years of having babies--and at nationals she will face a bevy of young sprinters who grew up idolizing her but seem poised to take her down. "I never count anyone out, and Marion is a premier athlete," says Olympic 100-meter silver medalist Lauryn Williams, 21. "But I'm trying to win a gold medal at nationals and a gold medal at worlds."
Back when she was unbeatable, Jones talked about her legacy in grand terms. "Before my career is over, I will attempt to run faster than any woman has ever run and jump farther than any woman has ever jumped," she said in 1998. Her bar is lower now. Perhaps this is the week that she regains her speed. Or perhaps she runs ever more slowly, in desperation, trying to save her once illustrious name.
For coverage of the U.S. championships, go to SI.com/more