'My name will be clear in the near future'

Posted: Tuesday, April 27, 2004

American men and women swept all six races at the ''U.S. vs. the World'' relays, the meet within a meet at this weekend's Penn Relays.

Even more impressive, considering the U.S. Olympic team trials are only 10 weeks away, might be that no athletes left Philadelphia being pursued by men in white lab coats.

That doesn't mean it wasn't a clean getaway. Far from it. Talk about a drug scandal still dominated most of the headlines. But the way things have been going for a beleaguered U.S. track and field team, maybe it's a sign of progress that all of the conversation centered on the continuing federal investigation into BALCO the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative run by Victor Conte instead of fresh allegations.

The star of the event, both on the track and in the news conferences, was Marion Jones. She is the most accomplished sprinter of her generation and is just beginning the long trek back toward the pinnacle of her sport after taking a year off to have a child. After winning an unprecedented five medals at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, she is perhaps the most recognizable face in track and field. And just like Barry Bonds, her counterpart in baseball, she is unflappable.

Of course, suspicions don't dog Jones' every step. Not yet, anyway. Then again, depending on whom you believe, that might be only a matter of time.

Quoting anonymous sources, two Bay-area newspapers claimed Conte told federal agents that Jones and Tim Montgomery, the father of her child and the world record-holder at 100 meters, were among some two dozen athletes he allegedly supplied with steroids.

Conte's lawyers denied their client ever provided information about specific athletes receiving steroids, and Jones' lawyer, Joseph Burton, responded to one of the stories with a statement saying, ''Victor Conte is either lying or the statement was involuntarily coerced. This is a character assassination of the worst kind.''

Jones is quickly getting a taste of what Bonds deals with on an almost-daily basis and she seems every bit as cold-blooded. Like Bonds and a host of other stars from pro baseball and football, she and Montgomery were called before the grand jury that wound up indicting Conte and three other men. All four have pleaded innocent. No athletes have been charged in the case, and all those who testified repeatedly denied using steroids.

And Jones' restraint has been admirable so far. She doesn't play the role of victim or label the investigation a witch hunt, even going so far as to acknowledge, ''the position that I am in, in the sport, my association with people in the past, perhaps has been in question.

''But I don't think,'' she added, ''that people are out to get me.''

With some of the past associations Jones has had, though, she hardly needs enemies.

The New York Times reported that a check for $7,350 from Jones' bank account was written to Conte in 2000, just before the Sydney Olympics. The newspaper also quoted two people familiar with the check as saying it was signed by Jones' former husband and one-time Olympic shot putter C.J. Hunter, who failed four separate steroids tests before the Sydney Games.

''My stance on it is that I have never signed, agreed, saw or sent any check to BALCO,'' Jones said. ''Or knew about it.''

Not long after, she went out and ran the anchor legs for the USA Red team on the 400- and 800-meter relays that dusted Jamaica and the USA Blue team, respectively. A week earlier, Jones finished fourth in the 200 at the Mount SAC relays, her first outdoor race since 2002. Rather than stalk off, she interrupted her preparations for the Penn Relays to answer a battery of questions with what appeared to be a very clear conscience.

And Jones appeared to be even less troubled by the expectations that are beginning to build.

''I realize that when I step on the track, people expect great things. They don't expect fourth-place finishes,'' Jones said Friday. ''I don't either, but considering everything I've been through, I take it week by week. As long as I see steady improvement by the time Sacramento comes around'' the U.S. nationals begin July 9 ''I'll be ready to run.''

Because steroids weren't banned by the major leagues until this season, Bonds and the rest of the baseball players face no suspension or other severe consequences as long as they told the truth to the grand jury. Under track's strict drug policies, Jones and Montgomery could be suspended and lose their chance to compete in the Athens Olympics if they admitted to steroid use even if they never failed a drug test, and even if they did not know they were taking banned substances.

If any of this genuinely troubles Jones, she isn't letting on. Her preparations continue full steam ahead.

''I'm confident,'' she said, ''my name will be clear in the near future.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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