Marion Jones, carrying the baggage of two years of drug accusations and declining results at age 30, has joined the field of Saturday's Reebok Grand Prix track meet on Randalls Island. She was a late entry to the 100m event, added to a roster of international stars despite not having run in a major competition since the 2004 Olympics. She missed almost all of last year because of injuries.
The Jones who appeared Friday at a news conference in Manhattan was a sharp contrast to the Jones who reacted defiantly to being linked to the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative steroids scandal in 2004. Jones knows her comeback is not universally popular.
"I feel like I still have more to achieve in the sport," Jones said. "I really don't think I'd be able to sleep at night if I left it all behind, that I ran away from a situation that, yeah, has been extremely difficult and perhaps a lot of people wouldn't have endured. But I wasn't going to allow that to happen."
Jones' representatives did not approach Mark Wetmore, the Reebok Grand Prix meet director, until last week about her running here, and the deal was reached only Wednesday. It was not announced until Friday because organizers did not want to detract from the appearance of Justin Gatlin, the 100m world-record co-holder. The women's 100m field is also strong, featuring Jamaica's Veronica Campbell and the Americans Lauryn Williams, who won the silver medal in the 100m in Athens, and Torri Edwards, who is making a comeback after a year's suspension for a banned stimulant that she said was in a glucose pill she took before the Athens Games. Even though Jones has never been caught using performance-enhancing drugs and denies ever using them, the accusations that the BALCO founder, Victor Conte Jr., has lodged against her have clouded her once-pristine reputation.
"You're taking on a lot when you take her on at the moment, and we all recognize that," Wetmore said. "It's something I had to think long and hard about. At the end of the day, I'm not in the judgment business. I put on a meet. Marion Jones wants the opportunity to run and I decided to give her the opportunity."
Although Jones will receive an appearance fee that Wetmore would not disclose, it is far lower than what she might have commanded if her request had come earlier, before organizers committed much of their budget to other runners. It is also nowhere near what Jones would have earned in her prime.
But Jones has fallen a long way from her heyday. In 2000, she was the toast of the Sydney Olympics after winning five medals, three of them gold. But even then, there were hints of what was to come. Her husband at the time, the shot-putter C.J. Hunter, tested positive for steroids and was banned from the games.
Later, the BALCO case would ensnare her. Conte said publicly that he had supplied Jones with drugs, and she was called to testify to a federal grand jury. Jones sued Conte for defamation -- it was settled out of court earlier this year -- but Conte has since been quoted as standing behind his accusations.
Jones also had a relationship with the sprinter Tim Montgomery, who is the father of her 3-year-old son. Montgomery's career was ended by his involvement with BALCO, resulting in a two-year ban and his having his world record in the 100m taken away. He is now under indictment in a federal bank fraud case, along with Jones' former coach, Steve Riddick.
At the same time Jones' reputation was taking a beating, her competitive career tanked. She finished fifth in the long jump in Athens and the 400m relay team was disqualified because of a bad handoff between Jones and Williams. In 2005, she pulled out of the national championships, citing injury.
"It's been a really difficult three or four years, and I think that has shown in my times and my performances," Jones said. "I could fool myself into believing that none of the exterior things, the outside factors, had an effect, but that's not the case. I'm not Superwoman. I'm human, and things affect me.
"You get to a point where you can't really control the exterior forces, you can just do what you can do. It has been difficult, but I'm seeing now there is some light at the end of the tunnel and things can only get better."
Jones said her first priority is her son, Tim Montgomery Jr., and she is putting her career back together carefully. She had been out of competition for 11 months when she appeared at a meet in Xalapa, Mexico, in May. She won the 100m in 11.06 seconds, topping a field that included Edwards.
Her only other race was last weekend in Hengelo, the Netherlands, when she ran 11.16.
Those performances helped convince Wetmore that she would be competitive in Saturday's field. Campbell has run the fastest time in the world this year (10.99), and Williams has also looked strong.
Wetmore said that Jones' presence would create interest in the meet, outweighing any negatives. "For me, I felt strongly enough about the meet and the prominence that she would bring to the meet, and if there's some negative aspects to it, there's always going to be negative," Wetmore said. "I can't do anything about that."
Neither can Jones, no matter how fast she runs.
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