'That gear wasn't there'
There's always this possibility, too: What if Marion Jones just isn't good enough?
It sounds laughable. It is laughable, I guess. But after Jones ran a tortilla-flat fifth place in the women's 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials on Saturday in Sacramento, one of the striking things about the people who finished ahead of her was how little of their psyches Jones commanded.
"I wasn't focused on Marion," said LaTasha Colander, whose time of 10.97 seconds won the sprint and sent her on her way to Athens. "I think when it's your opportunity, and the Olympics come only every four years, you've got to give it all you've got."
But what about Marion? The defending Olympic champion in the 100? A woman whose time in the trials final four years ago, 10.88, would've led the field on Saturday?
"I think everybody has ups and downs in their career," second-place finisher Torri Edwards said almost expressionlessly. "It's tough to stay consistent. That's really all I can say about that."
Jones wasn't hideously awful in her first attempted defense of an Olympic sprint championship; she just wasn't remotely close. The mid-race burst of speed that she showed so consistently in racking up 100 victory after victory on her way to Sydney in 2000 never came into play.
"As always, you expect her to hit that [extra] gear," said Herman Frazier, who will lead the U.S. delegation to Athens. "That gear wasn't there."
And it hasn't been, not for a while now. Jones, in fact, ran a remarkably similar race to this just a few weeks ago at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. Her time, 11.12 seconds, was fractionally ahead of the 11.14 she clocked in the trials final. She ran fifth both times. She looked about the same, which is to say, not heavily competitive.
At 28 years old, she was beaten Saturday by three women younger than her, and also by the ageless Gail Devers, whose 11.11 left her in fourth place, a hundredth of a second off the time she'd have needed to punch her ticket to Athens. Instead, Devers will attempt to qualify via the hurdles, an event she long dominated without ever bringing home Olympic gold.
Jones? She still has two chances for Greece, though one is significantly better than the other. A longshot at 200 meters because she has run it so infrequently in recent months, Jones' best remaining option is the long jump, an event she won at the Prefontaine (and for which she earned a bronze medal in Sydney).
That, of course, speaks not at all to Jones' state of mind, about which it's currently anybody's guess. Jones left the track Saturday as she had Friday, with no comment to anyone beyond a shot at the media for having "something negative to say" no matter what the circumstances. The scene wasn't encouraging: Jones being shoved through a crowd by a bodyguard to a waiting golf cart, then quickly driven off the premises.
She has too much on her resume to be dismissed, of course, and Jones as a competitive being is no one to be trifled with. But a year of almost constant speculation about her role in the BALCO drug scandal, coupled with the birth of her son with boyfriend Tim Montgomery, may well have taken the starch out of the athlete who four years ago dominated the scene in Sacramento, winning the 100, 200 and long jump.
It's a tough sell all of a sudden, the notion of that kind of dominance ever again being associated with Jones. For years, the one thing certain about Marion Jones beyond her athletic ability was her aura. For years, she had opponents beat on the starting line.
No more. Now, as 22-year-old sprinter Muna Lee said after the 100 qualifying rounds, "It's our time." And that time doesn't set aside time either for gawking at Jones or being cowed by her.
Two days into the Olympic Trials, the results speak for themselves.
Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com