In 1984, as an eight-year-old, she scrawled out her vow to become an Olympic sprint champion. Do the math: More than 16 years, a half-billion ticks of the clock, all poured into the briefest stitch of consecrated time in sports—not quite 11 seconds. So a few more moments of waiting was not about to faze Marion Jones before her date with the 100 meters. A helicopter beat its blades overhead, loud enough to postpone the starter's call. At one runner's request, race marshals ordered the entrants to stand up once in the blocks. The runner just to Jones's left false-started. The crowd turned elsewhere, cheering an Aussie pole vaulter on the infield. Then, finally, the pistol sounded.
Of the 100, Ben Johnson once said, "When the gun go off, the race be over." We should know better than to trust Ben Johnson. In fact, the 100 lasts long enough that the 40 to 50 strides of the race can be apportioned among five discrete elements. Jones isn't the sport's best starter, but she powered smartly off the line (block clearance), keeping her head low and letting her weight hurtle forward for as long as she could (the drive phase). By 30 meters her head was up (transition), but it was not until 55 to 65 meters in, with the striations of her hairstyle channeling the wind, that she reached top speed (acceleration). All sprinters lose their pace over the final 15 or 20 meters (deceleration), so she who decelerates least usually wins—and the best way to curb deceleration is by relaxation. Such is the paradox of the 100: Its brevity infuses every race with guidewire tension, yet without lassitude of muscle and mind a runner will impede her own progress. Jones eased to the finish in a luxuriant 10.75, her finest time of the season.
Twenty minutes later Maurice Greene of the U.S. would win the men's 100, negotiating the distance with the strain of every step registered on his face. But Jones kept her jaw so loose that her gums flapped, as if she were delivering a speech to spectators at the far end of the track. Just before she crossed the finish line, her mouth finally held itself open, fixed in a smile. Her arms flung open too. Then she hopped, clutched at her heart, pumped a fist in the air and dropped into a crouch, whereupon she lost her exultation in a jag of tears. Her coach, Trevor Graham, later guessed at the reason for that turn in her emotions; she was purging herself of any regrets over her decision not to go to the 1992 Olympics as a relay-team reserve, and the disappointment of missing the '96 Games because of a foot injury suffered playing basketball. "The whole nine yards," Graham said.
Jones had won by about half that distance—or .37 seconds. It was the largest margin of victory in an Olympic women's 100 final since 1952. "I was running only for the silver," confessed Ekater�ni Thanou of Greece, who placed second. Neither Thanou, nor two swift Jamaicans—bronze medalist Tanya Lawrence and dowager sprint queen Merlene Ottey—are the Marion kind.
For Jones, the race had played out flawlessly. She made only one misstep, and it had been a fashion faux pas. "People were saying, 'She's wearing silver shoes. Must be what she's running for,' " she said. "Guess I cleared that up."