Four years ago, US sprinter Marion Jones and her “Drive for Five” gold medals were the talk of the 2000 Olympics. She was to Sydney what her compatriot swimmer Michael Phelps, with his six gold and two bronze medals, is to Athens.
Jones was everywhere: on giant billboards, across every television channel and on countless newspaper pages. In Athens, she is almost anonymous. She is unable to defend her sprint titles and is reduced to competing in a discipline, the long jump, which does not come naturally to her. Olympic champion Heike Drechsler has derided her style as “kindergarten”.
Since Sydney her image has been dented by the fall-out from the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative affair. This has involved the investigation of several athletes and the banning of others for taking illegal substances linked to the Balco nutritional supplements company in California. One of the athletes under investigation as part of the federal inquiry into Balco is Tim Montgomery, the holder of the world 100m record and Jones's partner, with whom she has had a child. Jones has also been investigated by the US Anti-Drugs Agency but has repeatedly denied any drugs usage. Her reputation has nevertheless suffered.
Television and poster campaigns, believed to have been prepared by her shoe and clothing sponsors, have not materialised. And after she failed to qualify for the 100m at the US Olympic trials, she withdrew from the 200m. She is in the squad for the sprint relay, but remains uncertain to compete. As a result, her only individual contest will be in the long jump, whose qualifying rounds begin this evening.
Despite her naive jumping style, Jones won a bronze medal in Sydney on the strength of her speed on the runway. But her jumping was so unco-ordinated that she always looked like an accident waiting to happen, hence Drechsler's damning appraisal.
Jones abandoned the event after Sydney, and only began training for it again in the last few months under a new coach, Dan Pfaff. Pfaff has tried to instil a control of both speed and technique and, it seems, succeeded, to the extent that Jones has jumped 7.11m, her longest for six years. But another medal is far from certain.
Jones faces three technically superb Russians, in Tatyana Lebedyeva, Tatyana Kotova and Irinia Simigina, as well as world champion Eunice Barber of France, and the new darling of the crowds, Carolina Klüft of Sweden, who has already won the heptathlon here.