And so the battle continues


Marion Jones has been in no mood to be messed with, given that in her mind, she's been messed with plenty lately.

That's the problem with preordained guilt. Unless you're really used to a system that believes in it, you get pretty torqued off when you're in the crosshairs.

Jones came out Wednesday that she wants the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to put up or shut up vis-a-vis her reputation, in public and out loud. This wasn't as big a deal as suing USADA, or withdrawing from the Olympics, the other possible announcements she could have made, but it was a well-aimed finger in the eye at the agency placed in charge of saving the American Olympic movement from the benefits of chemistry.

It is her buzzard's luck that her announcement came on the heels of Victor Conte's letter to Prez Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft and some other miscellaneous DAs that the prime minister of Balconia is ready to roll on anyone and everyone as long as he can walk away when his rolling's done.

In other words, kids, here comes the million-ton hell-hammer, and watch out for the flying body parts.

Now, without knowing George II's attitude toward taking plea offers by mail, we can only assume that Conte had better be ready to rat out his entire Palm Pilot, and to do it on Pavlovian command.

Which is pretty much the way we all figured Conte would handle his role in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative case --- so that he got away, Tony Soprano-like.

Jones, though, is choosing the more difficult path -- trying to shame a quasi-government agency that likes working in secret into coming out in the open and either showing its hand or showing that its hand is empty.

If, as she claims, she is comprehensively blameless, she is running no risk by throwing her case to the public. It's called playing the ace on the first hand and, for the innocent, it's the most successful strategy.

But if her performance at her press conference was in fact a performance, well, we'll get to that soon enough as well ... not because of USADA's Law & Order: Criminal Intent-level brilliance but because Conte is on the wire.

The problem here, of course, is that Jones is one of the few athletes involved, however peripherally, who has dared to take this to the public and demand that someone either verify or disassemble her story. She has waved her 160 passing drug tests as proof that she is indeed as clean as newly driven Tibetan snow.

The rest of the BALCO story, USADA and the entire performance enhancing drugs story is all about nods and winks and supposition and guilt by association and guess-your-favorite-athlete's-weight carnival games. Jurisprudentially speaking, we are still in the excavation stage.

But we're getting closer, not because Jones all but slapped us in the mush with her claims of innocence, but because Conte is ready to spill. That's the domino people have been waiting to see fall since this all began last year, and it's that domino people will follow as this story plods through the summer and right up against the opening ceremonies in Athens in August.

Jones gets full marks for making her case, which is more than most other athletes pulled into the BALCO vortex have bothered to do. Ultimately, though, it's Victor Conte who is driving the bus, and there's no getting off until we find out whether he's got truth, or just cowardice, on his side.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com