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Monday, September 25, 2000

Shadow moving in on Jones

  Call it suspicion by association.

 Marion Jones, poised to become the greatest female athlete in Olympic history, has been tainted by the positive drug test of her husband, U.S. shot putter C.J. Hunter, and by now-confirmed allegations of an American drug coverup.

 Jones' rise to the elite of amateur sport is an athletic fairy tale. She was eight years old when the Olympics came to her home city of Los Angeles. After watching an event on TV, she ran to her room, rubbed out the homework assignments her mother had scratched into her chalkboard and replaced them with the words: "I want to be an Olympic champion."

 This is what has been lost forever to the spectre of performance-enhancing drugs: The chance for a woman to become the new standard for athletic excellence.

 TALENTED

 Jones did not lose a high school event after her freshman year, but her talents were evident away from the track, too.

 She attended the University of North Carolina, because admissions people promised to let her play basketball as well as run track. She starred from her first day as the Tar Heels point guard. North Carolina went 92-10 in her three years there.

 "I've had all-Americans and fantastic athletes play for me," Tar Heels basketball coach Sylvia Hatchel said. "Marion Jones is, without a doubt, the greatest athlete I have ever coached."

 Jones' win in the Olympic sprint Saturday was her 34th consecutive 100-metre victory. She won the bronze in the long jump at the 1999 world championships, looked like a solid bet for the 200 metres and needed wins in two more relays to turn a feat no athlete, male or female, has managed on the Olympic track: Five gold medals. American legends Carl Lewis and Jesse Owens are the only people to have won four golds at one games. Jones was ready, she was fully recovered from a broken foot and stood as the first woman in 50 years to win the 100, 200 and long jump at the NCAA championship.

 Just as importantly, Jones stood as a role model who cited her friend Florence Griffith Joyner as the inspiration behind her success. As does Tiger Woods, Jones had cross-cultural appeal. Her mother is from Belize and Jones holds dual citizenship.

 She returned to school and gained her communications degree and showed none of the braggadocio that has often distanced U.S. track stars from global popularity.

 "Greatness," she told an interviewer, "is defined by someone who is not simply awesome and wonderful in the sport they compete in but goes beyond that and is great in whatever they do off the track or off the court. They can make a difference in the world, whether by helping kids or helping people in need."

 She is packaged by Nike, which might still capitalize on her Olympic success and image as a role model for young girls.

 No one holds a positive drug test on Jones, but Hunter's positive will forever put in doubt whether Jones is a cheat.

 It is tough to believe the two could live together and thrive while only one used performance-enhancing drugs.

 Everyone knew Jones was a better athlete than her husband, who had removed himself from the U.S. team a few months ago, apparently hiding his drug test under the guise of a knee injury.

 The question the world will now ask is: Does she have a better chemist?