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Naked Ambition. Relentless Hype. After all the Talk, It's Time for olympian Marion Jones to Just Do It

August 06, 2000|MIKE PENNER | Mike Penner is a Staff Writer in The Times' Sports section

THE WORDS PRACTICALLY CREAK UNDER THE WEIGHT OF EXPECTATION. They're printed on the back jacket of a biography of a woman who won't turn 25 until October, who has yet to take her first competitive step in an Olympic Games, who has yet to set a world record in her sport, who is known by most Americans only as the mouth behind the microphone wanting to know, on behalf of Nike, if you can "dig it."

The words belong to Craig Masback, the CEO of USA Track and Field, a man who needs this woman to help sell track and field to a country that isn't interested 75% of the time, that still views his sport as a five-ring traveling circus that only unfurls its tent once every four years and then slinks away until the next Summer Games.

Marion Jones, according to Masback, "has the chance to be the first female international athlete to transcend sports. In my mind, only three people have done that: Pele, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan."

"Whoooaa," says Jones as she cools her heels in the bleachers near the running track at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. She's training there six days a week in preparation for September's Olympic Games in Sydney, where she'll primarily be concerned with transcending Inger Miller, Ekaterini Thanou and Zhanna Pintusevich in the women's 100-meter final.

"When I read Craig's quote, I had to look in the mirror. 'You talking about me? Little ol' me?'

"I've yet to set a world record. I've yet to win an Olympic gold. Yes, I have won world championship gold, but to even be considered in the same breath with the likes of Muhammad Ali and Pele and Michael Jordan, I think it's a bit premature."

Of course it is. It is far too much, far too early, but then, that's been the story of Jones' life. Everything about her--from her childhood predictions of greatness to her whirlwind basketball career at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill to her mastery of the 100- and 200-meter sprints to her anticipated coronation in Sydney--seems to have been done in an unrelenting rush.

At 14, Jones already had been christened as the future of American track and field, having won the first of four California sprint titles while attending Rio Mesa and Thousand Oaks high schools. At 15, she was competing in the U.S. national championships, a high-school sophomore mixing with Olympians and professionals. She finished fourth at 200 meters, eighth at 100.

Now, at 24, Jones already is a two-time world champion at 100 meters, having covered the distance faster--10.65 seconds--than any woman other than the late Florence Griffith Joyner. Her best 200-meter time--21.62 seconds--also has been surpassed only by Griffith Joyner. In addition, she's a 1998 U.S. champion and 1999 world bronze medalist in the long jump, giving her a multi-event arsenal with which she aspires--amid much hysteria within her sport--to win five gold medals in a single Olympics.

It has never been done in track and field, and the view throughout the sport is that it will never be done. The prevailing opinion is that the task is too rigorous; Jones would have to grind out three rounds of preliminary heats in both events just to reach the100- and 200-meter finals, on top of which she'd be running legs of 100 and 400 meters for the U.S. 400- and 1,600-meter relay teams, for which she is certain to be selected. And in between sprints, she would be long jumping--hurling herself down the runway and trudging out of the sand pit to try it again and again and again.

The skeptics use Jones as Exhibit A as to why it cannot be done. At last year's world championships in Seville, Spain, Jones already had won gold at 100 meters and bronze in the long jump when she began an assault on the 200-meter final. She never made it through the semifinals. She crumpled to the track with an acute case of back spasms and was taken by stretcher out of the meet before the relay finals.

Additionally, Jones is a rookie to the pressures of Olympic competition. She qualified as an alternate for the U.S. 400-meter relay team in 1992, but as a 16-year-old high school junior, she figured she had little chance of actually stepping onto the track for a race in Barcelona. She elected to stay home. Then a broken foot sidelined her in 1996.

Sydney will be "my coming-out party," Jones says.

Certainly NBC sees it that way, delaying all of Jones' exploits--as well as the rest of its Olympic coverage--half a day or more so that they may be better consumed, in prime time, in living rooms across America.

*

BUT IN INSTANT-ACCESS, DSL-LOADED 2000, HISTORY CAN'T WAIT. U.S. track and field, desperate for the public relations transfusion Jones' five-gold-medal quest represents, and corporate America, always eager to reserve seats on any passing red-white-and-blue bandwagon, already are packaging Jones for superstardom. Jones has become the hot-buzz IPO for these Olympic Games.

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