Jones finally appears vulnerable
ATHENS, Greece -- Thousands sat and watched as one of the world's greatest athletes had one of the world's worst nights Friday at Olympic Stadium. Anybody could have seen it coming, but nobody wanted to because Marion Jones has become one of the most popular athletes in the world.
Nobody wanted to see her as an also-ran. Nobody wanted to see her as a distracted mother. And certainly nobody wanted to see her as the center of a swirl of controversy about drugs.
Yet, that's exactly what she seemed.
Jones had been able to withstand the pressure of the tumultuous months leading up to the Olympics. She stood tall even while she was under attack.
As she took off down the runway of her first long jump attempt of the evening, the weight of the world's scrutiny and doubt caught up with her and kept her from taking flight. She fouled on the first jump, and in her best attempt, her second, only managed 22 feet, 5½ inches. Jones, who in the past had only been weighed down by the five medals she wore around her neck, wound up a distant and unacknowledged fifth place behind a Russian medals sweep.
She still had the 4x100 relay. How ironic that one who had been a lone superstar would need a supporting cast of three to salvage a medal.
An hour and a half after the long jump, Jones was taking the baton from teammate Angela Williams who had run a strong first leg. Jones tore around the curve, headed for rising American star Lauryn Williams.
Then Jones' night turned from disappointment to nightmare. "At the end of the 100, I was a little out of breath," said Jones, 28, "and I just couldn't get [the baton] to her."
Upon Jones' approach, Williams took off a tad too early. After three unsuccessful tries, Jones finally got the stick into her teammate's hand. But the pass had taken place outside of the 20-foot exchange zone.
Instead of the Olympic Record the team had planned to set, the letters by their name read DSQ.
As Jamaica celebrated its victory, Russia the silver and France the bronze, Jones, Williams and Williams clutched each other's arms as they gravely walked toward anchor runner Latasha Colander.
They looked as if they were walking out of a hospital with bad news, using one another for strength in anticipation of the pain that lay ahead.
They did not let go of each other for the next 30 minutes.
They made their way through the hot tunnel underneath the stadium where they would face the media together. The questions were only aimed at Jones.
The grand dame of track and field assumed her role of veteran spokeswoman, explaining away the mistake and shielding her young teammate from any blame.
"You know the baton didn't get around," Jones said with a sarcastic chuckle. "I really don't even know what happened. Angela ran a good leg. I thought I ran a good leg. I couldn't hand the baton to Lauryn, and it didn't happen today."
The next question was slightly more personal. "Can you talk about your experience here at the Games Marion?"
"It was a rough one," she said.
Then, the unthinkable happened. She broke.
Jones turned her head away, lip quivering as she tried to hold back the tears. The reporters waited, stunned and uncomfortable, suddenly sympathetic to a figure they had attacked with such ferocity for the past months.
Her teammates stood by her, felt for her, but finally they came to her rescue.
"She's a warrior, and I want you all to know that," Colander said forcefully. "You all have been on her from the beginning to the end and the USA team is going to stick with her. In the Olympics it's not always about the win; it's about the struggle and the journey to get there. And this journey has been very tough for her."
Few could believe what they were seeing.
Maybe because they never thought she needed it, maybe because they had been afraid to lend it, but for the first time Marion Jones was getting the support she needed. She was part of a unit, a team -- it's what Marion Jones needed all along but nobody would give her.
The U.S. relay team members made their way down the hall, still holding hands as they walked out of sight. Jones didn't have a medal hanging around her neck but she didn't leave Athens empty handed.
This might have been the Olympic experience that she needed all along.