SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Maybe it was the pressure. Maybe it was age (29). Maybe it was going through childbirth 13 months ago. Maybe it was the circus of the BALCO investigation.
Or maybe, as cynics say, it was that Marion Jones finally was competing without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs.
Whatever the case, she withdrew Saturday from the 200-meter semifinals here at the U.S. Olympic Team Track Trials. And her withdrawal ends the drama surrounding her in Sacramento.
Jones previously failed to qualify in the 100 meters, although she did qualify for the long jump in Greece.
"It's extremely disappointing," Jones said at a packed news conference on Saturday. "I'm not going to candy coat anything."
Jones had been decidedly average in a qualifying heat of the 200. At the news conference, she said that when she awoke Saturday morning she was too fatigued to continue to run.
Under investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for her association with Victor Conte of the controversial BALCO Laboratories, Jones has become the focal point of a cheating scandal that has overwhelmed this sport.
It was widely believed that U.S. track officials were rooting that Jones and six other athletes named in the scandal would not qualify, thus saving officials from banning them. For the most part it has played out that way, including the failure of Jones' boyfriend, Tim Montgomery, to qualify in the 100 meters, an event in which he holds the world record.
Jones considers the entire situation unfair and unfortunate. She has never tested positive for steroids (although BALCO is alleged to have provided undetectable drugs to athletes) and has consistently maintained her innocence.
Jones pointed out the irony that other athletes, such as sprinter Torri Edwards (who won her heat of the 200-meter dash), have tested positive in the past but are allowed to compete with much less speculation.
"If you don't believe any other part of [my criticism of] this process, believe that [this] is unfair," Jones said. "Athletes who have never tested positive have been drawn through the mud."
But it really isn't that simple.
First off, the burden of fame is something Jones has embraced in the last half decade, and it's made her a lot of money.
Second, the mystery of the BALCO scandal — who's guilty, who isn't — has read like a drugstore novel.
The question of guilt with Jones has drawn the headlines because a positive test such as Edwards', while more convincing, isn't as interesting to the public.
Jones, however, wasn't in a combative mood on Saturday. She bristled at some media reports that criticized her for turning down interviews during the trials, but for the most part she smiled and tried to laugh.
Mainly she looked like a woman resigned to fact that she is no longer on her A-game and isn't sure how to find it.
"It's definitely been an up and down year," she said. "It just didn't happen."
Jones gave birth to her son on June 28, 2003, and while she believed she would be fully recovered by this point, she now admits she may have underestimated things.
"I think it was tougher than I thought," she said. "I was so successful since I was 14 years old in this sport. You get to the point [where you think] nothing can get in the way of success."
So maybe that was it.
Or it could have been all the speculation, all the defending herself of charges that wore her out.
"It's been emotionally draining having to deal with all I've had [to] over the last few months," she said. "[But] most of it is physical fatigue."
Whatever it is that slowed her down this summer, she contends she isn't done.
"This disappointing year will serve as motivation to prove to myself and the world that I am not this old shriveled woman," she said with a smile.
Four years after boldly trying to win five gold medals in Sydney (and winning three), that is what it had come to for Marion Jones, jokes about her mortality, promises that she'll be back.
In the meantime, whatever happened to Super Marion the sprinter is anyone's guess.
"I wish I knew," she smiled weakly.
- Marion Jones