NEW YORK – You want to believe her. Boy do you want to believe her.
Marion Jones should be the poster child of the United States Olympic Team heading into the Athens Games. Personable, popular and intelligent, the sprinter/long jumper who won three gold medals in Sydney represents everything there is to like about the Olympics.
And this time around she's added a twist: She's a new mother (her son was born in June 2003) trying to reclaim old glory.
Instead she finds herself amid the swirl of questions about steroids, about BALCO, about the concern that we will send dirty athletes to Athens.
"I have always been drug free, I am drug free and I will continue to be," Jones said Sunday.
And so you want to believe her. You want this whole thing to end.
But what of her ties to BALCO founder Victor Conte? What of reports that Conte told a federal grand jury he supplied the designer steroid THG to Jones? What of her subsequent grand jury testimony? What of her past praise of Conte's work? What of the positive test of her ex-husband, shot putter C.J. Hunter? Or the BALCO ties of her current live-in boyfriend and the father of her child, sprinter Tim Montgomery?
Jones met the national media on Sunday here in midtown Manhattan. Unfortunately for everyone (particularly Jones), she provided few answers to the key questions that are fueling the speculation.
She refused to discuss her grand jury testimony or anything regarding Conte, whom the federal government alleges ran a steroid ring out of his Bay Area laboratory. She said she had been told not to, although not by federal investigators.
Jones said her "P.R. team [and] lawyer" said she should say nothing specific.
She needs a new P.R. team then. It makes no sense for an innocent person to let her reputation be sullied by unfair and unfounded suspicions. You'd think someone in that situation wouldn't shut up.
Give Jones credit for this much: At least she showed up. Montgomery, to whom Conte also reportedly told the grand jury he supplied THG, was slated to appear but fell suspiciously "ill" at the last minute.
"This morning he wasn't up to making the flight," Jones said.
Hell of a guy. He left his girlfriend to take all the heat.
Jones didn't create the public's suspicion of track athletes ("I think there has been a problem since the beginning of time," she acknowledged). But the cloud hanging over the sport is greater now than ever, in part because of these high-profile links to BALCO.
"Let's be honest," USOC president Bill Martin said. "Track and field is where most of the smoke is coming from."
America wants and deserves a clean team. Because of the war and the delicate international opinion of our country, the last thing we need is cheat athletes in Athens.
Jones says she understands her role as the face of her sport.
"I'd love to sit up here and talk about training and my goals, but this is what it is," she said. "I am one of the best in my sport, an elite athlete, a cover girl for track and field, so I have to expect to be asked things that won't be comfortable."
But then she won't answer what she's asked, even while declaring she doesn't care what the suspicious think.
"I don't live for those people," she said. "I live for myself and my family, and those people know the truth."
She opposes the controversial United States Anti-Doping Agency policy that could disqualify athletes for "non-analytical positive" tests – basically a guilty verdict based on circumstantial instead of scientific evidence (such as a drug test). She promised a lawsuit if the Agency barred her from competing in the Athens Games without a positive drug test.
"I'm not going to sit down and let someone or a group of people or an organization take away my livelihood because of a hunch, because of a thought, because of somebody who's trying to show their power," Jones said. "We live in the United States where you are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty."
That's certainly true in a court of law, but not in the court of public opinion, which she isn't doing enough to sway.
Jones was asked: What is your relationship with Victor Conte?
"I've been told not to comment on that," she said.
It's time to start commenting, Marion.
Because we want to believe you. We really do.