Can I still admire Marion Jones?

May 11, 2010 at 8:59 pm (watch)

The WNBA season opens this weekend, and when the Tulsa Shock face off against the Minnesota Lynx on Saturday, a league that has long struggled to build a fan base will find a few more eyes cast its way—because Marion Jones is on the roster for the Shock.

Most people, of course, know Jones best as a fallen track superstar, who recently spent six months in prison for lying to federal investigators about taking performance-enhancing drugs before the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. She’s also a 34-year-old who just gave birth to her third child last year. But as an article in last week’s New York Times Magazine detailed, the former college basketball star (she won a national championship with the University of North Carolina in 1994) is staging a comeback via the WNBA.

Amid all the hoopla, I’ve been struggling with the question: Is it okay to still like, and even admire, Marion Jones?

During the golden-girl media storm leading up to her five medals at the Sydney Olympics, I thought she was fantastic. That crooked-toothed smile. Those specially-designed, clear plastic Nike spikes with no heel, the lightest ever made, that cast the soon-to-be Vogue cover model as a modern-day Cinderella. That teddy bear of a shot putter husband (who, like her second husband, sprinter Tim Montgomery, ended up busted for doping). That speed.

I started running track in high school, the year after Sydney. Breathless after a race, crumpled to the ground with burning thighs, I’d picture Jones zipping across the 200-meter finish line in 21.84 seconds. She would have been charming reporters before I reached the straightaway.

Now, a decade later and roundly disgraced, Jones is back. And even after the drugs and the lying and the check fraud scheme and the jail time and the struggle of her poor Olympic relay teammates, who to this very day are fighting to regain the medals that the IOC ordered stripped from them, I find myself rooting for her.

Did Jones lose my respect? Of course: I was angry and sad when the truth came out (and some people speculate she never told the whole truth, or revealed the extent of her drug use). She is an embodiment of the problems that plague high-level sports, and part of the reason why, when people watch an astonishing race from Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, their first instinct is to say, “He’s got to be taking something.” She deserved to crash and burn, and to suffer the harsh consequences—public, private, athletic, financial—of her lies.

But I thrill at her pure competitive fire. I’m in awe of her physical prowess–how many people can be among the best in the country, or world, in one sport, let alone two? And I think it takes no small amount of courage to get knocked down, hard, and get back up.

Jones could be accused of joining the WNBA for less-than-noble reasons: she’s trying to reclaim the spotlight and celebrity, to curry public favor, to recast her past through the filter of motivational-speaker rhetoric about lessons learned. Regardless, Jones is legitimately an athlete. An amazing athlete, who appears to be busting ass in training for a chance to get back in the game. And though she’s one of the oldest players in the WNBA and could probably use a little boost, you’ve got to think that she’s 100% clean this time around, or else she’s a damn fool.

“The word redemption is not in my vocabulary,” Jones said at a press conference in March. “This is an opportunity for me to realize a dream. This is an opportunity for me to share my message of hope, of second chances…but redemption doesn’t creep into the equation for me.”

But of course her story will be framed as a quest for redemption; it’s a narrative we all know and love. I hope she pulls it off.

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1 Comment

  1. penny said,

    Marion Jones was on her way at being the greatest athlete in the world and i wouldnt put anything pass her beingsuccessful in basketball . We all know that the sports world is really a mans game and for anywomen to have the natural born strength to be as strong as a man is forbidden. Although florence griffith joyner had a faster time than marion, marion jones was on her way to becoming more fast than anyone on the planet. Marion Jones is very saavy and she knows what she is doing. With her intelligence and having already accomplished greatness, there is no telling what the future has for thisbright young superstar. p.s We all have made mistakes in our lives and anyone who has the courage to be honest about them deserves redemption.

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