If only for a few minutes, Marion Jones helped track and field reveal its better side last Friday night at the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden. Soon after she had won the 60-meter dash, her first race since a yearlong maternity leave, Jones circled the arena, smiling and signing autographs for people leaning from the stands. As she walked, an expanding wave of cheering kids, 10 to 15 deep, followed her. It was a reminder that Jones, who won five Olympic medals in Sydney, is still the marquee figure in her sport, and that there is a measure of hope that she and the sport can move past the controversy that has dogged them.
Jones has never failed a drug test, but last fall she was called to testify before a federal grand jury in San Francisco investigating BALCO, a Burlingame, Calif.-based supplement company that has been accused of producing the designer steroid THG. ( Jones was listed on BALCO's website as a client of the company's founder, nutritionist Victor Conte.) Last week, for the first time, Jones publicly addressed the BALCO case—which has hung over the track world for months—saying, "Nobody has ever said anything about Marion Jones using performance-enhancing drugs, and they never will." Yet until she clarifies her link to BALCO and Conte (her lawyers have advised her not to discuss specifics during the investigation) she will face questions about it.
Jones answered any questions about her crowd appeal by boosting Millrose attendance to 14,000, up from 8,000 last year. Her first indoor race in six years was a challenge for Jones, who is notoriously slow out of the blocks. "After four steps I looked like a woman who'd been on pregnancy leave for 12 months," said Jones, who was in fourth place after 30 meters. "Then I switched gears and said, I'm Olympic champion and I better be out running and dominating this race." She finished in 7.21 seconds, the second-slowest winning time at Millrose in the last 13 years.
Jones, who last June gave birth to a son, Tim Jr. (whom she calls Monty), fathered by her sprinter boyfriend Tim Montgomery, won't discount making another run at five gold medals this summer in Athens, but she forcefully deflects requests for predictions. "I have work to do, and I needed to race or I was going to pull my hair out," she said after Friday's meet. "I missed track."
The feeling was mutual.