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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | BILL PLASCHKE

Five-Gone Conclusion

Jones doesn't make history, but she tried to make it, which is what America is all about.

September 30, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

SYDNEY, Australia — She tried to do too much. She tried to be too big. She tried to grab what was ridiculously out of reach.

Yet as Marion Jones ran 20 long strides here down the long-jump runway Friday night, eyes squinting, dreaming what nobody else here dreamed, perhaps the words of a cynical chorus should have been whittled to two.

She tried.

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Her celebrated trek across uncharted territory to become the first track athlete to win Olympic gold medals in five events stalled, appropriately, in the sand.

Her leap of faith failed at the leap.

Her feet fell short by the length of an index finger.

Marion Jones, after two gold-medal sprints, didn't fly so well at the end of a third one Friday when she finished third in the long jump by less than three inches to winner Heike Drechsler of Germany.

With two relays remaining today, Jones won't fulfill her celebrated goal.

On the one night she most worried about hearing her anthem, she didn't.

But it was OK. Because in many ways, she epitomized it.

As brash as the Boston Tea Party, as bold as a moon shot, Jones did what the best Americans have been doing for more than two centuries.

She went for it.

She tried to be outrageously better than anybody else, even if it meant raising the hair on everybody else.

She strung a tightrope between skyscrapers. She went down a waterfall in a barrel.

She dared.

You can wonder about many things, but bless her for that.

"The dream for five is not alive anymore," Jones said shortly after jumping 22 feet 8 1/2 inches, not a season or personal best. "But I don't regret at all saying that I was going for five. I had a shot."

Fittingly, she approached her last five-gold chance with the same moxie as her first five-gold announcement.

She walked up to her last leap. She was in third place. The top two jumpers were waiting.

Her personal best would have won it. Heck, her season best would have won it.

She needed to find one gust of air. She ducked her head and raced toward it.

"It was something every athlete dreams of, to have the jump of your life on the last jump," she said. "You've got to put it all out on the line. I went out very aggressive, very fast, very fast."

Too aggressive. Too fast. She didn't only put it on the line, but over the line.

Her jump was splendid, brilliant, longer than 23 feet, long enough to win, and what a story that would have been.

But her foot crossed the red line on the takeoff board, the red flag appeared, the jump was wiped out.

It was her fourth foul in six tries, as sloppy as if she had jumped in an evening gown.

"I saw the gentleman flip the red flag, and it dashed my hopes," she said.

Hopes that would have been higher, say experts, if she just knew what she was doing.

The usual criticism of her coaching reappeared Friday, clinging to her like the sand on her ankles.

Said former triple jumper Willie Banks: "Marion's problem is, she doesn't attack the board with enough force. You can see that because she falls forward when she lands."

Added her agent, Charley Wells: "I am not a coach, but she was running too fast."

The problem is that Jones' coach, Trevor Graham, is also not a long-jump coach. Rather, he is a sprinter who was introduced to her several years ago by--here's that name again--C.J. Hunter.

Since then, every long-jump coach this side of Bob Beamon has tried to convince Jones to work with them.

Carl Lewis' coach. Mike Powell's coach. Even a Russian coach, who said Jones had "kindergarten technique."

Her own rivals even talked about her crude style.

"She has to work on her run-up," said Drechsler, who has been winning long jumps for nearly two decades. "But with a good regime, she will go far."

The words have jumped on deaf ears. Jones' loyalty to husband Hunter, who has hurt her reputation here by flunking drug tests, extends to everyone in her small circle.

"I jumped nearly 24 feet in 1998 . . . and I have every hope that I will get back to that form," she said when asked about changing coaches. "So my answer to your question is no."

If only those choppy steps were smoother. If only it didn't seem as if she actually slows down before jumping.

If only, Graham said, everyone would pipe down.

"They all criticize what Marion is doing," the coach said. "But they don't know Marion like I know Marion. After she breaks the world record, maybe people like Powell and the critics will shut up."

It is hoped here that, for all the potential controversy awaiting her husband, Marion Jones keeps talking track. It is hoped she will keep throwing out mind-bending goals like fishing lines, letting them sit out there awhile before trying furiously to reel them in.

It has been fun this year to watch the edges of those five gold medals bobbing in the water. It is not a disappointment that she couldn't finish the job. It has been fun just watching her try.

Now, about Athens in 2004 . . .

"I think I'll wait two years to tell you guys," said the brash, bold, American Olympian.

Take all the time you need.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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