The lack of attention was noticeable. Television would carefully carve and craft this moment for Marion Jones, put it in a narrow dramatic frame: Here she is. Final attempt. She needs to beat 22 feet, 11� inches to take the long jump gold. But there was none of that in Stadium Australia.
On Day 15 Jones was a quiet third act in the stadium floor's three-ring circus. There wasn't even a public-address announcement that she was ready to jump. At the far end of the field the men's pole vault competition had reached its final stages. The runners for a semifinal heat of the 4 x 100 relay were on the track, sleek little bullet men, churning their legs to loosen their muscles. Jones—the most celebrated of all the U.S. athletes as these Games began—simply appeared at the head of the straightaway, ready to go. The 24-year-old track diva had trailed all night, fouling on three of her first five jumps.
"How do you like this?" John McGrath, a columnist for The News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash., asked. "It's two o'clock in the morning back home. I have a story about Marion Jones and her quest for five gold medals that's being printed now, that people won't even read for five or six hours. If she doesn't win this thing, the story's moot before it even is delivered to people's homes. Is this whacked or what?"
The two scoreboard screens did not show Jones's picture. The Australian crowd of 110,000, so loud for so many other performances, did nothing. There had been electricity at the end of the men's long jump a night earlier, when Cuba's Ivan Pedroso edged quirky Jai Taurima of Australia on his final jump. There was no such electricity now.
Was this because of the tinge of scandal attached to Jones's efforts, the revelation that her husband and mentor, shot-putter C.J. Hunter, had tested positive for the steroid nandrolone earlier this summer? Champion or cheater? Had the crowd made up its mind?
The long jump isn't the most compelling event to begin with, and Jones, unlike Taurima the night before, chose not to milk the moment. And there was no Australian woman in the final to inflame the locals. But with the two U.S. women's relay teams having qualified for the finals, Jones's dream for five golds was still viable. Right now, no matter if anyone watched, what she had to do was uncork one big jump. Right here. Now.
Jones hit the board and went high into the air and landed in the pit, far past the seven-meter mark, farther than anyone had traveled all night. She looked back. An official raised a red flag. Foul.
Heike Drechsler of Germany finished first. Fiona May of Italy was second. Jones was third. She said in her press conference that she had been aggressive on her final jump, make or break, fouls be damned.
Fingers started typing. It would be many hours before the people of Tacoma, where Jones was still invincible, would learn that she was not.