Commentary

Even on 'Oprah,' the truth and Marion Jones don't mix

Originally Published: October 31, 2008
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

In a sudden spasm of honestly delivered thought, designer-drug guru Victor Conte last year told a reporter Marion Jones ought to be allowed to keep her five medals from the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, an endeavor in which history already has recorded Jones as a convicted liar and a cheat.

His reason?

"In my opinion, the overwhelming majority of athletes Marion competed against in 2000 were also using performance-enhancing substances," Conte said. It's a level playing field, so long as you're counting by the needle and the flaxseed-oil capsule.

Still: Hear, hear. The man who designed the cheating drugs was just about the first to stand up on his two hind legs and suggest what everyone else was thinking.

Of course, he only said it after he got caught.

And as Jones' squirm-inducing appearance on "Oprah" this week suggests, the truth remains in staggeringly short supply in this era of the runaway cheat. In Marion's case, she can't even come clean after having come clean, if you follow me.

Last year, Jones admitted to federal investigators that she lied when she told them she had never used performance-enhancing drugs as an athlete. In fact, she lied and lied and lied and … well, you were there. You either read or saw most of Jones' multiple in-your-face denials of the drug charges that first started following her around in high school and carried on through both the 2000 and 2004 Games.

Marion Jones
Hiroko Masuike/Getty ImagesLast October, Marion Jones pleaded guilty to lying and then faced the media. Is she telling the truth now?
She was cheating from at least 1999 on, according to Conte, who for all the sleaze dripping from his lapels has been steadfast -- and remarkably detailed -- in his descriptions of how he aided specific athletes, Jones included. Conte's open accusations once so annoyed the denial-centric Jones that she sued him for $25 million, but it was for show; the case was settled out of court, apparently without a penny changing hands.

Jones' first national appearance, post-prison, was the "Oprah" episode in which the host gingerly stepped around Marion's ludicrous responses to her questions about what Jones knew and when she knew it. It was more of the same. Oprah clearly didn't have the heart to go after Jones the way she went after faux-memoirist James Frey, whose lies had humiliated Winfrey because of the way she had backed him publicly.

In Jones' case, she let down a country, then went to jail. But listen to Victor Conte: Everybody was doing it.

And many of them still are -- lying, that is.

I posed to several marketing experts the question of where Marion Jones goes from here, but the answer (nowhere special) is irrelevant beyond the obvious tragedy of Jones' brilliant career being reduced to dust. The bigger question, and the truly unanswerable one, is about how we -- the fans, the followers, the ticket-buyers, the Nielsen audience -- might reasonably choose up sides.

Marion Jones was a photogenic wonder of a track star, charming, famously dedicated, a beacon of light for a sport that already had seen dark days because of drug use. It was so much more tempting to believe her lies than it was to believe, say, Jose Canseco, who always came across as a self-promoting blowhard who'd do just about anything for a little camera time.

But look around: Canseco wound up telling more truth than anybody else in baseball's steroid scandal. C.J. Hunter, the big lout whose drug-related expulsion from the Sydney Olympics tainted Jones because she was married to him at the time, later revealed in grisly detail the ways in which he injected Marion with steroids and showed her how to ingest other substances. He told a lot of truth, too, albeit under slimy circumstances.

Conte, totally unsavory and generally unapologetic, can give you time-and-date details of the ways in which he helped top athletes cheat, Jones among them. It's just a rogues' gallery of lowlifes and yet they've all stood up to tell more of the truth than Marion Jones, even after she went to prison for her persistent, systemic falsehoods.

People wanted to believe Jones for the same reasons they wanted to believe Mark McGwire, or Rafael Palmeiro -- for the same reasons some of them still want to believe Barry Bonds or any of the NFL players currently getting popped for drug-policy violations.

It's just easier to root for heroes than for scum.

That notion came home with feeling this week, after Jones shed tears for Oprah Winfrey and again maintained that she didn't know what she was taking back in the day. Victor Conte didn't waste a moment in crafting a response.

"Enough is enough," Conte said. "She knowingly used performance-enhancing drugs and has already been to prison for lying about it in the first place."

But that's only Conte talking. He's the bad guy. Right?

Mark Kreidler's book "Six Good Innings", about the pressure of upholding a small-town Little League legacy, is in national release. His book "Four Days to Glory" has been optioned for film/TV development by ESPN Original Entertainment. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, Kreidler can be reached at mark@markkreidler.com.

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