Cover Story: Marion Jones
By Teryl Warren
In 2007, Marion Jones – a young wife, mother and superstar athlete – found herself at the epicenter of one of the biggest doping scandals in sports history. The justice that followed was swift; and the fallout – relentless, in the beginning – will probably never fully subside.
Having voluntarily surrendered her 5 Olympic medals from the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia, with many of her mind-blowing records stricken from the books, and having served 6 months in prison, what remains today is not Marion Jones, the superstar, but rather, Marion Jones the woman. At just 36 years of age, life beyond sports must go on for Marion Jones. And so, we spoke to her, about her plans, her legacy and her dogged determination to ensure that her future is even more meaningful than her past.
As a young girl in Los Angeles, CA, Marion Jones literally grew up in sports. Raised by a single mother, she realized, at an early age, that she was blessed with physical talent; and success in sports like basketball, soccer, gymnastics, and track and field soon followed. And when the Summer Olympic Games came to her hometown in 1984, it was literally love at first sight.
“I was nine years old,” Jones remembered. “I attended the Olympic parade, and I waved to the athletes. Later, at home, I watched the Olympics; and there was something about the athletes – that look on their faces and the joy the winners expressed when they crossed the finish line – that shaped what I wanted to become. Right then, I wrote on my homework chalk board that I was going to be an Olympic champion.”
Self-motivated, eager for practice, and inspired by the likes of Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Evelyn Ashford, Marion Jones sacrificed a lot of frivolities and parties that her classmates enjoyed in pursuit of her Olympic dream.
“I loved training and I understood the meaning of sacrifice,” she told us. “At 15, I made the Olympic team as an alternate on the relay team, but I decided not to go because I wanted to make sure that my first Olympics experience would be phenomenal.”
And phenomenal, it was. After a successful collegiate career at the University of North Carolina in both track and field and basketball – Jones was a member of the university’s national championship-winning women’s basketball team in 1994 – Jones set her sights on experiencing that gold medal-winning glimmer she’d first seen in the eyes of the Olympic Champions in 1984.
“After every training session, I would ask myself ‘Have I trained harder today than everyone else in the world? Did anyone train better or harder than me today? And most days, I could truthfully say that no one had,” she beamed. “I knew that if I could push myself more than anyone else, and deal with the pain, that I could win. I just had to do my part.”
Marion Jones went on to become the darling of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia; and the feeling of carrying an entire nation’s hopes and dreams across the finish line is an emotion Jones, to this day, struggles to describe.
“Until you stand on the podium, you see the flag and hear your national anthem being played, you don’t realize the enormity of it all,” she said. “People feel so much excitement in knowing that their countryman or countrywoman has achieved that much success – I can’t begin to do the emotion justice – how wonderful it feels to be able to represent your country. It’s truly a proud moment.”
And as proud as that moment was for Jones, what followed can only be described as equally, if not more, devastating. On October 5, 2007, Marion Jones faced the music, and her adoring public, in a now-famous press conference in New York.
In her own words, she admitted that, “It is with a great amount of shame that I stand here before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust.” She went on to tearfully announce that she’d plead guilty to two counts of lying to federal investigators, and took full responsibility for letting her family, her country and herself down.
“You have the right to be angry with me,” she acknowledged, before asking the world to forgive her.
In the wake of her admission, Peter Ueberroth, then-chairman of the United States Olympic Committee, famously said that “Marion Jones will be remembered as the biggest fraud in sports history.”
“A lot of people have said a lot of things about me, and I understand that,” she told us. “Yes, I made a mistake, but the most important thing is what you do after the mistake. Do you just sit down and do nothing about it?”
The jury is still out regarding much of the public’s perception of Marion Jones. What is evident, however, is that, with the loss of most of her racing accolades and after serving a six-month stint in prison, she has paid her debt to society. And her sincere hope is that, ultimately, the price she has paid will not be in vain.
“When I was incarcerated – especially when I was in solitary confinement – I had time to reflect on my past and why I made certain choices,” she shared. “Moving forward, I thought about how I could make better choices and motivate others to slow down before making potentially life-changing decisions.”
Marion’s new platform for impacting the world includes a new book, On The Right Track: From Olympic Downfall to Finding Forgiveness and the Strength to Overcome and Succeed, and a program called “Take A Break” that encourages people -especially youth – to pause, take a break and consult with others who will provide honest advice before making decisions that could have negative, life-altering consequences.
Articulate and confident, Marion Jones has been bringing her message of hope and redemption to audiences comprised of both young people and adults all over the country. And, at least to this point, the public has received her quite well. Forgiveness and mistakes, after all, are not just a sports issue.
“The idea of second chances is so powerful. We all deal with tough situations, and every single person makes a mistake in their lives. What would we do if there were no second chances? When people meet me and hear me speak, they get it.”
Not one to sugarcoat anything, Marion confided that, from time-to-time, she still grapples with feelings of guilt and regret; but she finds strength in others and a much-needed catharsis in her speaking engagements.
“Even now, there are moments where I’m still disappointed in myself – I’m still a work in progress,” she said. “Sharing my experiences and journey helps every day in the rebuilding and healing process for me.”
It may surprise some to know that, as we begin another Olympic year, Marion does not find herself particularly overcome with despair.
“I still love the sport of track and field and will watch the big competitions – it’s not a sad time for me at all,” she shared. “When the Olympics come around, it’s a time for me to reflect and be happy about my accomplishments and to thank the Lord for blessing me with talent and the opportunity to compete.”
And so, whether her critics choose to forgive her or not, Marion Jones has, with the same commitment that made her a world class athlete, set out to ensure that her legacy will be that of a life which, in both triumph and adversity, has served a purpose.
“My journey has been tough, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” she replied. “I’ve chosen to bring light to the mistakes I’ve made; and I’m making sure that my life is about more than just a mistake. That’s what I’ll ultimately be remembered for.”
To learn more about “Take a Break” and On The Right Track: From Olympic Downfall to Finding Forgiveness and the Strength to Overcome and Succeed, please visit: www.marionjones.org
You can also find Marion Jones on Facebook at: facebook.com/pages/Marion-Jones
Photos courtesy of Austin Fit Magazine