Commentary

The implausible deniability of Marion Jones

Updated: October 5, 2007, 9:55 AM ET
By Shaun Assael | ESPN The Magazine

I'll give Marion Jones this: She knew how to bring it. In late 2004, I sat in a San Francisco hotel room with BALCO's Victor Conte and listened to him confess that he'd given Jones banned performance enhancers before she won five gold medals at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. He predicted she'd deny it when our story was released, and he was right. She filed a $25 million libel suit against him.

Marion Jones
Robert Galbraith/REUTERSAfter years of public denials, Marion Jones is finally fessing up.
Now, according to a report in the Washington Post on Thursday, she's proving Conte right again by telling friends that she's going to plead guilty on Friday to a charge of misleading federal prosecutors about her drug use.

Jones used her money and fame the way the mob uses muscle, and the results were pretty much the same. In 2004, before the Athens Games, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was frothing to make a case against her. According to multiple sources at the time, it had calendars labeled 'MJ' that showed she used insulin, growth hormone, and BALCO's infamous clear and cream. All they needed was Conte to interpret them, and she'd be cooked. Instead, Jones quietly settled her libel suit against him. Conte's cooperation never materialized.

Trying to recapture her drug-earned fame at the 2004 Games in Athens, Jones failed miserably. Then 28, her best finish was fifth place in the long jump. Over the next two years, she had a baby and laid low as a noxious cloud gathered around her.

For starters, the father of her child, Tim Montgomery, retired after a two-year doping ban against him was upheld. Too, her ex-coach, Trevor Graham, got dragged deeper and deeper into the muck, leading to an indictment on charges that he lied to federal prosecutors. His trial is scheduled to begin in November.

Jones should have continued to lay low and count herself lucky. Instead, she decided to drag us through the spectacle of a comeback. She was in Zurich on Aug. 17, 2006, when she suddenly pulled out under mysterious circumstances. She'd been told that a portion of a urine sample she'd given two months earlier had turned up positive for the blood oxygen booster, EPO.

Finally, her pursuers at USADA thought the bell had tolled for her. All that remained was a follow-up test on the second part of her sample, the so-called 'B' sample. Astoundingly, it turned up negative. Thanks to what in retrospect looks like a flaw in the EPO test, USADA's prosecutors were left empty-handed again.

Trevor Graham
AP Photo/The News & Observer, Scott LewisJones still claims Trevor Graham, her coach, told her it was flaxseed oil.
Jones, meanwhile, kept up her cynical offense, gloating in a press release: "I am absolutely ecstatic. I have always maintained that I have never ever taken performance enhancing drugs, and I am pleased that a scientific process has now demonstrated that fact."

That same week, Floyd Landis was bleating about being framed in the Tour de France fiasco. Landis learned a lot from Marion. He learned that you deny, deny, deny, until you can't deny any more. Then you blame the system. Jones famously called USADA a "kangaroo court." Landis called it corrupt.

I can't understand how athletes can keep making fools of the people who believe in them. Landis took money from working folks to pay for his failed defense. In a letter to friends and family, Jones reportedly says: "I want to apologize for all of this. I am sorry for disappointing you all in so many ways."

She owes that apology to those athletes who really are innocent, and have been unjustly tainted by her seven-year lie. What a legacy.

Shaun Assael writes about Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, and the whole cast of BALCO characters in his forthcoming book, "Steroid Nation," available here.

• Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine
• Author of "Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour"; the New York Times best-selling "Sex, Lies and Headlocks"; and "Steroid Nation"