MARION JONES’ WOES PART OF A NEW WORLD

TO: All kids

FROM: A sportswriter

It wasn’t always like this.

Once upon a time, the sports world didn’t have handcuffs, fingerprints and indictments. Once upon a time, we didn’t have steroids, HGH or dogfighting.

Once upon a time, we really did just watch the games. We kept score at home, we dreamed about catching foul balls and when someone won something, we believed they won it. We didn’t wait for the urinalysis.

Once upon a time, when a woman like Marion Jones captured three gold medals at an Olympics – including the treasured 100-meter race, making her “the fastest woman in the world”- she came home wearing those medals around her neck and everybody cheered. We didn’t hear words like “steroids,” or “masking agents” or “the Clear.”

We just believed our eyes.

Once upon a time, the sports world wasn’t the way it was this past week, kids, and it’s important you know that because otherwise you might wonder why people bother with sports at all.

Jones – who made a second career out of insisting she was clean, always had been clean and would sue those who claimed she wasn’t clean – admitted she wasn’t clean. She admitted using banned substances before winning her golds in the Sydney Games.

And once again, those of us who remember a different sports world wondered how things fell apart so fast.

The shot putter and the sprinter

I’ve met Marion Jones. I not only covered her races, asked her questions, marveled at her skill – but also hosted her on a radio program six years ago. She arrived with her then-husband, C.J. Hunter, a shot putter. At the time, Hunter was facing charges with using banned substances and failing drug tests – and Jones was livid.

“We’re confident in the very near future C.J.’s name will be cleared,” she said on the air. “We’ve found out a lot of information in the past couple of months on people that are not doing the right things in this sport and so we plan on getting it all out in the open.”

As it turned out, Hunter’s name was not cleared. He retired. He and Jones divorced. And a few years later, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, Hunter told investigators that he had injected Jones with a banned substance before the 2000 Olympics and that he saw her inject herself as well. He also claimed she had HGH and a substance known as “the Clear” with her at the Olympics.

Again, Jones was livid. She claimed Hunter was an angry ex with an ax to grind. Her lawyer at the time made this emphatic statement: “She has never, ever used performance-enhancing drugs.”

But now she admits she has.

In fact, she admits using “the Clear.”

It didn’t used to be like this.

The unworthy runner-up

Marion Jones is not the first to make headlines this way and she won’t be the last. But for some reason, her admission really seems to sting. Perhaps because she was so adamant all these years. Perhaps because it comes on the heels of Barry Bonds’ steroid shadow sapping the joy out of the home run record or last year’s Tour de France winner, Floyd Landis, being stripped of his title for failing a drug test.

Perhaps because, if Jones is stripped of her 100-meter gold, it will go to the second-place finisher, Greece’s Ekaterini Thanou. And you want to believe that at least justice will be served.

Except that Thanou, four years later, was accused of staging a motorcycle accident to avoid a drug test at the Athens Games and was subsequently banned from competition for two years.

Who’s clean? Who can you believe? When is someone banging a fist on a table still lying? When is the most impassioned cry of “I’m innocent” still just an act?

I don’t know. All I know is these kinds of questions didn’t used to be part of the sports world. Neither did beakers, labs or the FBI.

You should know this, kids, because you are probably shrugging off Marion Jones as just another athlete who did what athletes will do. And the fact that you shrug it off?

That’s what scares us older folks the most.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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