Will Mario Jones live up to the hype?
Word got out quietly in the spring of 1998. Marion Jones's agent, Charley Wells, sidled up to a writer doing a feature on Jones and said, "You know, we're going for five gold medals in Sydney." At the 1997 world championships Jones had won the 100 meters, stunning track insiders with the swiftness of her return to form after three years of concentrating on basketball at North Carolina. It was assumed that come Sydney, the versatile Jones would try to match the performances of Jesse Owens in '36 and Carl Lewis in '84 by winning gold medals in the 100, 200, long jump and 4 x 100-relay. That assumption was wrong. "We're going for the four-by-400 too," Wells said.
The writer recounted Wells's declaration to Jones. It was true, she said, and shrugged. No biggie. To a young woman who had run 200 meters faster than any other female high schooler in history, who had earned a 1992 Olympic relay berth at age 16 (and turned it down for various reasons) and who as a freshman point guard had helped lead the Tar Heels' women's basketball team to the national title, the extraordinary was commonplace and her reaction to it Tigeresque. "That's my goal," she said. "To do something nobody has done before."
No woman has attempted to win five track and field gold medals at one Olympics. In 1948, Fanny Blankers-Koen won four, and 40 years later Florence Griffith Joyner nearly won four but fell just short on the anchor leg of the 4 x 400 (file this away). Five golds is the career record for a female U.S. Olympian, and Jones proposes to equal it in a span of nine days. Some very talented people were, and remain, amazed at the breadth of her ambition. "Why go for all five now?" asks Michael Johnson, who won two golds in the 1996 Games. "She's an amazing athlete, but why not get the 100,200 and four-by-one now, and then come back in 2004 and get the 400, long jump and four-by-four?"
Why not? "Because that's not her, not even close," says Curtis Frye, Jones's sprint coach during her dalliances with track at North Carolina. " Marion Jones is a genius, and you don't restrict genius, you applaud it."
This is a fair admonition. At 24, Jones is the second-fastest woman in history at 100 and 200 meters (behind Flo-Jo), a dangerous—if inconsistent—long jumper and a voracious competitor. "The girl is nasty, period," says Maurice Greene, the men's world-record holder in the 100.
As soon as Jones began speaking about winning five golds, she became the hot topic of pre-Olympic buzz. Five, five, five! That's all she heard. Jones was like Mark Spitz in 1972 or Lewis in '84, a superstar-in-waiting, but in a world with vastly more media. Her image suffered slightly when she went to the '99 world championships in Seville seeking four gold medals (she didn't participate in the 4 x 400) in a Sydney dry run but got just one gold, finishing third in the long jump, injuring her back in the 200 and dropping out of the 4 x 100 relay. She flew home without speaking to reporters, creating the impression that she was immature and that her handlers—including her 300-pound husband, world shot put champion C.J. Hunter—were overmatched by the demands of her celebrity.
Nike, with which Jones has a seven-figure endorsement contract, then did something for her that it had never done for an athlete of her stature. It arranged for her to be represented by a public relations firm, Bragman Nyman Cafarelli of Beverly Hills. The Swoosh People didn't want any more bad press for this smart, attractive female whom they viewed as nearly limitless in her potential to sell their goods. Together the shoe company and the p.r. agency have managed Jones's time and polished her image, taking full advantage of her telegenic appeal.
All that is left is for Jones to win five events. Can she? You bet. Will she? Consider: Including qualifying, she has to run 10 races and long jump as many as nine times. On Sept. 27 she has to run two heats of the 200 and qualify in the long jump. On Sept. 30 she has to run two relay finals less than two hours apart. Cool Sydney evenings will help, but fatigue will be a factor. A look at each event:
100 meters—Jones hasn't lost a 100 in nearly three years, and her barely wind-aided 10.68 this year in Stockholm is the fastest non-altitude, non- Flo-Jo time on record. If you're looking for a chink in the armor here, look at her Aug. 11 race in Zurich, in which she started terribly and, even after catching Inger Miller at 50 meters, didn't draw away, winning by only .01. " Marion has been beating everybody," says five-time Olympian Merlene Ottey of Jamaica, "but this is the 100 at the Olympics. One mistake, and anybody wins." Don't expect Jones to make that mistake.