Sprinter Marion Jones uses public eye to become role model she wasn't the first time
After losing Olympic medals and serving seven months in prison for lying and a check-fraud scandal, Marion Jones now hopes young athletes can avoid her pitfalls by being aware of their surroundings and pressures.
Seattle Times staff columnist
The day after she was released from prison, Marion Jones and her husband, former Barbados sprinter Obadele Thompson, sat alone in their Austin, Texas, home and tried to decide the right path for the rest of her life.
One of the most visible athletes of her generation, Jones could have disappeared. She could have attempted to piece together her life in private. She didn't need some kind of public absolution.
Jones grew up in front of us. Her life was as public as a politician's and her fall from grace was as steep and swift as any athlete's in our history.
After prison, she could have lived a solitary life and raised her three children far from the madding crowd. Instead she's had the courage to climb back up in front of the same people who watched her fall.
She's back with a message that is as honest as a stopwatch.
"Initially, after having been away, the thought of having a quiet life out of the public eye was very inviting," Jones said Monday afternoon before an appearance at the Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club. "I wanted quiet. I wanted to re-connect with my family, to try and live whatever a normal life is. But we decided, at some point the kids are going to know about my life and if I decided to get away from the public eye, what was that telling them.
"We teach them every day that if you make a mistake, you come and tell us. You deal with the consequences and you move on. I didn't want to live my life as a hypocrite. I wanted to be a living example to them, of somebody who made mistakes but absolutely didn't give up."
In October 2007, after years of angry denials, Jones pleaded guilty to two counts of lying to a federal agent about her drug use and admitted her association in a check-fraud scheme.
In 2008, she served almost seven months in prison. She surrendered the three gold and two bronze medals she was awarded in the 2000 Summer Olympics. She virtually forfeited her life's dream.
"One thing that has helped me through this is that I'm not sitting on my butt, on my couch in Austin, watching 'Judge Judy,' " said Jones, 35, whose book, "On The Right Track," was published last fall. "I'm confronting everything, every single day, with the hope that I can help these kids avoid some of the things I had to go through."
In the years leading up to the Sydney Games, Jones was the example of everything that could be accomplished by women in sports. She was smart, eloquent and faster than any woman alive.
"I know I had fans all around the world and so many, most of them, all of them, were disappointed in me," she said. "I surrounded myself with people I thought 100 percent had my back. I probably saw red flags in certain relationships that I decided to ignore. That was probably one of the biggest mistakes that I made. Then I made the biggest mistake when I lied about what I knew."
Somewhere during her pursuit of gold, Jones lost her moral compass. As the investigation wore on, the anxiety of knowing that someday she might get caught in her lies became all-consuming. She said it was almost a relief when the lying was over.
"The idea of carrying (the lies) around for another day, for another month, for another year and living this life that is a lie was overwhelming at times," she said. "But more important than that, I had kids and when you have kids you realize that everything you say, or in my case, everything you don't say, will affect them.
"So I made the decision that I had to face my consequences, whatever they might be. Face them. Deal with them. And move on."
Jones said she paid attention to the recent Barry Bonds' trial in the same way any sports fan would.
In a muddled verdict, a federal jury in San Francisco last month convicted Bonds only of a single count of obstruction of justice, while curiously deadlocking on counts that Bonds lied about taking steroids, HGH and receiving injections.
It is doubtful Bonds will serve any prison time.
The next superstar's trial will be Roger Clemens' in July.
Jones was asked if she ever feels as if she has been scapegoated, taking the fall for every cheater in every sport.
"I don't see it like that," said Jones, who next month begins her second season as a guard with the WNBA's Tulsa Shock. "You know what? I broke the law. I sat across a table from those federal investigators and I made the choice to lie to them.
"And because of that, I put my freedom in somebody else's hands. When you do that, you know what? Good luck to you. It's not for me to judge these other folks. I'm not in their shoes. But did I think that possibly I was sentenced to more time than I deserved? The answer's yes."
Certainly, the air hasn't been cleared since Jones' sentence. In the battle between cheaters and testers the odds seem always in the cheaters' favor.
Should we still be skeptical of every sprinter, cyclist, home-run hitter, 20-game winner and discus thrower?
"There will always be skepticism about great performances," Jones said. "Some with merit and maybe a lot without. I will take the blame for a certain amount of that. But I will not be defined as the person who is the face for what has gone wrong with sports.
"All I can do now is encourage young people and young athletes to be aware. Be aware of your surroundings. Ask questions. Be an active participant in your training. I'm confronting everything I've done with the hope that these kids can avoid some of the things that I went through."
Marion Jones has chosen this second chance in the public eye. A second chance she is using to be the role model she wasn't when she was the fastest woman on the planet.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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