When Marion Jones wasn't fending off allegations that she cheated during the last two Summer Olympics – "I never failed a drug test" – she loved to wax about the most sentimental of motivations, her "joy of representing my country."
She was just a California kid, fueled by national pride, not performance-enhancing drugs, she said. She won five medals, three of them gold, and had the powers that be cover her in swooshes, wrap her in a flag and sell her as the All-American Girl. We were supposed to be honored to have her compete for us.
Now here come the Olympics again and Jones is sitting in a Fort Worth, Texas, prison, broke and busted with her medals stripped and her old sport – Track and Fraud – in tatters.
She was right about one thing – Marion Jones never failed a drug test. The first allegations heaved at her came when she was a sophomore in high school (Johnnie Cochran successfully defended her). Still, they never did figure out a test that could catch her sophisticated doping act. Like Capone, essentially it was the IRS that got her.
She admits now she cheated her spandex off back in Sydney, back when she supposedly was representing America, from sea to shining sea and all that.
As the Beijing Games approach, all anyone can do is hope, unlike in years past, those representing our nation actually consider it more than a marketing ploy.
If you want to best honor America, it isn't to get "The Star-Spangled Banner" to cascade into the Chinese night by any means necessary. It's to lose.
Cleanly, that is.
Go ahead and not medal. Go ahead and "fail." Go for the bronze. Then hold your head high. If you can win honestly, that's great. If not, just stay home. If everyone else is cheating, then let them.
If the United States can wind up with a team that didn't debase itself, that didn't fall into scandal, that doesn't have its signature athlete in the federal clink when the 2012 London Games roll around, then it is far better than the false pride and fool's gold of years past.
Let China and others compete for that ridiculous "total medal" count, like it means anything anyway.
It's bad enough when any athlete cheats. The unraveling of a Floyd Landis, a Barry Bonds or a Roger Clemens is a spectacle of karma coming due. In those cases, though, they generally only hurt themselves. That's pro sports, where everyone is an individual mercenary.
To take the world stage as a member of Team USA, ostensibly representing our nation's values and culture, with PEDs in your system is far worse. Yes, it's just sports – not war or politics or pollution. Still, you can't bask in (and cash in on) bringing America glory when you win and not deliver equal shame when you're caught.
"It is really very simple," Ato Boldon said in a newspaper in his native Trinidad and Tobago. Boldon is a hero in the tiny Caribbean nation for his four medals as a sprinter in the 1996 and 2000 Games. In three of those races, Boldon was defeated by someone who wound up either an admitted or suspected drug cheat.
Boldon remained above reproach, maybe because he understood the Olympics were more than snagging a shoe deal.
"I would have loved to have four gold medals," Boldon said. "However, I would not have wanted to have those four gold medals right now (and) have the eyes of the world thinking Trinidad and Tobago is a place where it's OK to cut corners. The reputation of my country was a lot more important to me than any medal and cheating."
Is it too much to ask for the American team to care that much about, you know, America?
Nike – the ubiquitous United States Olympic Committee sponsor – may have declared at the 1996 Games that "you don't win silver, you lose gold," but none of it counts as winning if you have to return the medals in the end like their girl Marion.
The truth is, it doesn't really count if you get to keep them, either.
Unquestionably the anti-doping officials won't catch the cheats. They rarely do. The money and motivation is in the crime, not in the investigation. The athletes will do anything. The testers will do what they can.
Jones was a long-term, systematic doper surrounded by long-term, systematic dopers, yet she repeatedly and boldly called out the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) like her old competitors on the starting line ("Catch me if you can"). She forever pointed to her perfect record against their tests. Then she'd whine about how unfair it was for innocent folks like her.
In Marion's case, it was easy to talk like that when she knew they weren't looking for the right thing. USADA tests were like giving a breathalyzer to someone on cocaine.
It isn't all that different now.
USADA's Travis Tygart said his organization can't apply its best (and most expensive) tests all year round due to a lack of funds. While they still catch some – swimmer Jessica Hardy was nailed with a positive test this summer – it's a glaring loophole for athletes. The amount needed to close it? A paltry $2 million. McDonald's, Coca-Cola and all those other Olympic sponsors could fill that gap with change in the sofa.
At least if they cared, they could. Or thought anyone else did.
"I abhor doping; it drives me crazy," former U.S. swimmer Gary Hall Jr. said. "What bothers me most about it is the resignation and the attitude of a lot of the public that it's just part of sport today.
"We need to get over that, because it's not OK. It's more than just cheating. It's the future of sport, not just the livelihood and dreams of the athletes."
Much is being made – mostly by swimmer Dara Torres – about USADA's enhanced drug testing pilot program. Torres uses her voluntary participation in it to defend against skeptics who can't figure out how a 41-year-old woman with one kid, two major surgeries and a recent beneficial asthma diagnosis just happened to become a gold-medal favorite over athletes two decades her junior.
Fair or not, she has taken over Marion Jones' old spot of these games. Her story is simply too good for any but the most naive to categorically trust.
The USADA program really isn't much of a cover, either. At one point it was called "Project Believe." The name was scrapped, though, perhaps because even its administrators don't fully believe in it.
"I want to be absolutely clear, we can't guarantee (it)," Tygart said of a drug-free U.S. Olympic team. "It's sad and it's unfortunate."
So once again we go into the Summer Games with no safety net of anti-doping tests to save us from the skepticism borne of past scandals.
The NBC propaganda machine almost assuredly will promote Torres, this sent-from-heaven-ratings-bonanza, as driven-snow pure. She'll just be a middle-aged super mom doing it for her country.
And maybe she is. Not that anyone can be sure.
Jones, after all, got her medals once, got her fame and commercial fortune, got her fawning praise as a humble American hero.
She never failed a test, she noted. She was just representing her country, she pleaded.
Today, she is in prison, and you can only hope our Olympians understand what Ato Boldon was saying – that a dignified bronze can be the best victory of all.