The Cult: Marion Jones
Marion Jones was one of the world’s best athletes, until a doping scandal brought her low. She was at her best when she failed valiantly, and at her worst when she succeeded through deceit.
Illustration by Dan Evans
This week's inductee to The Cult is an American athlete whose brilliance came at the cost of her own integrity. You can read past entries here.
Cult Grade: Pulling a Fast One
In 1992, in her high school years, it was clear that there was something special about Marion Jones. She was nothing short of a sprinting phenomenon, dominating the California athletics scene like no one before. She was a twinkle on the horizon before her competitors were out of the starting blocks, a camera flash on the finish line while her peers were still on their heels. It was her sophomore year of high school, and she had already placed fourth in the 200m of the USA Championships. She'd finished fourth in the 200m trials for the Barcelona Olympics, and was well on her way to winning the prestigious Gatorade Player of the Year Award three times in a row.
That wasn't even the half of it for Jones, who was an accomplished basketball player at point guard and a budding long jumper. She was the pride of Thousand Oaks High School, a once-in-a-generation sporting talent. She was different, as all of her fellow athletes knew. She had incredible pace, impossible power and an insatiable desire to compete and succeed. She was a marvel to all who watched her.
Oh, and also, she could miss a mandatory drugs test and get away with it scot-free.
Home video footage of Jones winning the California State Meet in 1990
In 1992, with her athletics career hurtling ever onwards, Jones failed to provide a sample for a standard out-of-competition test. She was hauled up before a tribunal, under threat of a four-year ban from track and field. Defended by attorney Johnnie Cochran – the lawyer who famously went on to play a vital role in the acquittal of O. J. Simpson – she was exonerated, after he successfully argued that a letter informing her of the test had been misplaced. She went back to competing, and would soon become one of the most famous and celebrated Olympians in the world.
Though it is hard to be sure precisely when Jones started taking performance enhancers, insinuations of drug use clung to her career from that point onwards. There were pointed comments from her rivals, winks and nudges amongst commentators and sometimes outright accusations from those who felt there was something seriously amiss. Once Jones started competing at the highest level, however, she entered a world where it was increasingly difficult to triumph without chemical assistance. Speaking to USA Today about her triumphs at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, one of the men involved in Jones' downfall later said: "In my opinion, the overwhelming majority of athletes Marion competed against in 2000 were also using performance-enhancing substances."
The man in question was Victor Conte, the founder and president of the sports nutrition clinic which Jones frequented alongside boyfriend Tim Montgomery and ex-husband C.J. Hunter. The clinic was known as BALCO, and was meant to provide athletes with supplements to improve their performances. Instead, it ran a comprehensive doping programme, providing them with illegal steroids and other PEDs.
When a federal investigation into doping brought BALCO crashing down, Jones' career began to collapse with it. In 2004, Conte appeared in an interview with Martin Bashir on ABC's 20/20, and confirmed what Jones' detractors had long suspected to be the case. Conte stated that he had personally given Jones several different illegal performance enhancers before, during and after the Sydney Olympics. C.J. Hunter testified before a federal grand jury that Jones' drug use had begun well before Sydney, and before she had even met Conte. Though there was not enough evidence to bring charges against her, her reputation was rushing headlong towards the point of no return.
When she finally admitted to her use of PEDs in October 2007, there was an air of inevitability to it. Having vehemently denied using drugs for over a decade, it must have been a small relief to finally tell the truth. She had pulled a fast one both on the track and off it, but her dubious methods had eventually caught up with her. She conceded that she had lied to federal agents under oath about her drug use at the Sydney Olympics, and was sentenced to six months in prison. Before serving that time, she sobbed her way through a press conference, telling the nation: "I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust."
With that, her achievements were decimated. The three gold medals she won in the 100m, 200m and 4x400 relay in Sydney were confiscated, as were the bronze medals she won in the long jump and 4x100 relay. All of her victories from 2000 onwards were expunged from the record books. Her accomplishments were officially struck off, washed away by a deluge of recrimination, anger and public humiliation.
Marion Jones lied, and she did so masterfully. Not all of her competitors were clean athletes, but some of them were, and those women were cheated of their own success. Jones went from high school superstar to victorious Olympian, leaving hundreds of competitors trailing helplessly in her wake. How many of those competitors were unfairly denied their moment of glory, no one will ever know.
Point of Entry: High
One of the saddest things about Jones' downfall is that she could have been great on her own terms. She had massive natural ability, even if it is difficult to know exactly when she began to complement that with something else. With her parents divorcing when she was young, she was brought up and supported by her stepfather, Ira Toler. When he died suddenly in 1987, she turned all her attention to sport. She was driven to succeed as much by mourning as personal ambition, a heady mix which propelled her to the pinnacle of junior athletics before she was even at the sharp end of her teens.
In that, there is perhaps something of an insight into Jones' downfall. If athletics was a form of catharsis and escapism, then it's easier to understand why she tried to guarantee her success. The running track was an escape from a harsh reality, and so she became dependant on sprinting and winning. She was living in a sporting dreamworld. Unfortunately, in her reverie, she soon found herself sleepwalking towards a life of pure fantasy and no small measure of deceit.
Jones' denials of drug use may have been delusions but, for a fleeting moment, those delusions must have been exquisite. Watching her win the 100m final in Sydney is spellbinding, even in hindsight. She explodes out of the blocks, pumps her legs with astonishing power, tears forwards and leaves an ocean of empty track behind her. Belting across the finish line, she throws her arms out like she's flying. For a second – a fleeting, delusional second – she really is.
The Moment: The 1999 World Championships
It is difficult to pick a defining success from a career now laden with disqualifications, and one has to go back to the 1999 World Championships in Seville to find a moment which suits. It was the last competition in which Jones' record suggests she ran cleanly, even if there are plenty of allegations to the contrary. She still holds her gold medal in the 100m, as well as bronze in the long jump. However, she had aimed for four medals prior to the start of the Championships. For perhaps the only time in her all-conquering heyday, she was given a serious reality check.
Having placed first in the 100m and third in the long jump, Jones went into the 200m daring to dream. She made a strong start to the race, but suddenly pulled up holding her back midway through. She had strained a muscle, and would not be able to compete further. Visibly devastated, she was stretchered off to a huge round of applause.
Nobody would have known it at the time, but this was Marion Jones at her best. It was a moment of valiant failure in a career otherwise blighted by unscrupulous success. In those few minutes, as she was stretchered off the track, Jones showed the world her most honest self. In a career ruined by longstanding lies and elaborate fancies, that glimmer of honesty now seems priceless.
Oprah Winfrey: "So there never was even a question in your mind that what you were taking would be considered illegal or performance-enhancing?"
Jones: "Never a question. Never a question. I never thought that I needed to use to make me better. I never knowingly took performance-enhancing drugs."
An exchange from an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show, broadcast in October 2008. Even then, Jones was still trying to pull a fast one.