UNFORGETTABLEMARION JONES’ STAGE PRESENCE AND PERFORMANCE TRANSCEND A SPORT AMERICANS TRYHARD TO IGNORE

SYDNEY, Australia — The great ones make you forget their flaws. Michael Jordan became so synonymous with championships, people forgot his losing years. Muhammad Ali became so known for brash knockouts, people forgot the rope-a-dope fights where he barely earned decisions.

Now it is Marion Jones’ turn. Only her task is harder. After her Olympic gold rush is over, the most gifted female to ever put on spikes has a huge task in front of her:

She has to make people forget she’s a track star.

Because, let’s face it, America is not a track country. America barely notices track. And if Marion Jones is to become the national icon everyone is predicting, she has to rise so far above her sport, people don’t even care what it is.

I, for one, think she is capable of this. I think she is capable of being known as a magical athlete — specifics be damned. Watching her in the 200-meter final Thursday, staring down the track, her face placid, her eyes no more stressed than someone on a back porch watching birds, she effused that countenance that marks the biggest stars in sports. Jordan. Ali. Woods. Gretzky. They all, at the critical moments, get that removed sort of gaze, as if floating above it, untouched by pressure. They look like they’re on a different plane.

Jones not only looks it, she runs it. Did you see her in that 200 race? Sorry. I called it a race. Truth is, from starter’s pistol to finish line, there was no one else in contention.

Jones’ winning performance of 21.84 seconds, the fastest time clocked this year, was — like her earlier victory in the 100 meters — so far ahead of the field, she had time to tie her shoes and order Chinese food. The 200 was less about beating the other runners than leading them.

Jones looked like the Pied Piper. C’mon, girls, this way!

“I’m happy and relieved,” she said afterward. “I’m really just happy my sprints are over. I don’t think anybody doubted me in the sprints. But my real test will come in the long jump. I’m going to have to dig down deep.”

Marion Jones is the fastest female runner in the world. Of this there can be no doubt. She motors; the others chug. She glides; the others push. She barely breathes; the others suck wind.

Her shot-putting husband may have used steroids, but it is a mark of Jones’ fluid dominance that if you suspect her of anything, it is not of putting something foreign in her bloodstream but whether she has a bloodstream at all.

Sometimes, with those legs doing the up-and-down like pistons, with those arms slicing air like a human bread knife, she is so mechanically perfect you think it’s all wires and batteries under that skin.

Overcoming a controversy

Speaking of under her skin, let’s talk about what gets there. Apparently nothing. I have been saying all along that C.J. Hunter should get no special credit for being Jones’ husband, nor should Jones get special sympathy for being his wife. His failed drug test problems are his own doing — so are his hard-to-swallow denials — but Jones has chosen to cloak herself in his protection, saying numerous times, “I have C.J. to watch my back,” as if we’re all out to get her. In that case, she has chosen her bodyguard; she has to live behind his wall.

But it would be unfair not to pay homage to Jones’ power of concentration. Many athletes would be unnerved by a spouse’s drug charge. Think about all that can derail. At least half of what Jones will achieve after the 2000 Summer Games will depend on image. Gold medals are no assurance of anything. Just ask Carl Lewis.

Yet Jones competes as if this doping controversy is the farthest thing from her mind. On Tuesday night, she attended a news conference with Hunter. The next day she cruised through a pair of 200 heats and qualified for the long jump on her first try. Sweat? What sweat? Everyone from her mother to her agent says Marion is at her best when she gets mad. Mad means focused. Focused means performance.

That, too, is a mark of the great ones. Ali mad at Liston. Shaq mad at his critics. Lawrence Taylor mad at an opposing lineman. John McEnroe mad at the guy across the net.

But those guys we got to see over and over. Which brings up an interesting question: After these Games are done, when will we see Marion Jones compete again?

Olympic figure skaters get their weekly network performances. Dream Teamers go back to the NBA. The soccer teams have their World Cups.

But do you think America will start watching the Bislett Games because Marion Jones is in them? Or the Mt. Sac relays? Or any other international track meet? Come on.

What does she do for an encore? She’s only 24. She can’t just stand there holding up her medals. Poor Marion can’t even concoct one of those over-hyped, post-Olympic challenge matches, the kind that Michael Johnson and Donovan Bailey engaged in. Who would challenge Jones? In what event? Who would take it seriously?

Maybe she could race Maurice Greene.

Probably not. Which means that after these Olympics, Jones will have one of her trickiest feats in front of her. How does she keep from being a two-week story?

“I’m not here to win two gold medals,” she said Thursday. “I’m here to win five.”

There’s your answer.

Her drive for five

Five golds would get her a permanent seat on the Famous Persons Podium. Of course, the last three medals are much more out of her hands than the first two. The long jump — Jones’ worst and most unpredictable event — is not a head-to-head competition. The wind changes for each competitor. Sometimes your last jump is before your biggest rival’s. And the relays? Well, someone drops a baton, you’re cooked, there goes your piece of history.

But if all this happens, if she gets the five — or even if she comes close — Marion Jones will be a fascinating test case for American fame.

Because until now, America’s fondness for female Olympic athletes has mostly been in gymnastics (Olga Korbut, Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug) and figure skating (Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan). The only track and field stars to even remotely break through the barrier have been Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Florence Griffith-Joyner. And to be honest, most Americans couldn’t tell you what events they competed in.

Jones will have to overcome that — or she will not be happy. She is a perfectionist, a winner. As one of her coaches says, “If Marion ain’t winning, she ain’t coming.”

I think it’s there for her. I think she becomes a modern miracle, and the track and field part is extraneous. She does, after all, play a mean game of basketball. And I’m betting she could handle a tennis racket, jump over a bar or get good with a soccer ball. This is talent on loan from the heavens. What we saw in the 200-meter dash was that special something, that transcendent quality that says, “I know how to win. I know how to amaze. I can feel when it’s time to do that.”

She has done it so far. These Olympics are hers for the taking. Yet how strange that her biggest challenge could come next week, once the bleachers are folded up.

Having stunned the world, will Marion Jones be able to keep her country’s attention?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). And catch Mitch’s Olympic TV report on “The Early Show,” 7-9 a.m. today on CBS (Channel 62 in Detroit).

MEDAL COUNT Leaders through 224 events

G S B TOT United States 32 18 26 76 Russia 19 18 21 58 China 26 15 15 56 Australia 15 22 14 51 Germany 9 12 20 41

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