October 16, 2007

Will the Real Marion Jones Please Stand Up?

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I had only one nickname growing up. And it had absolutely nothing to do with my name, or my favorite animal or even my middle initial. No, my nickname throughout middle school and into high school was Marion Jr. The Marion in this case stands for Marion Jones, one of America’s most dominant female track and field athletes since Florence Griffith Joyner. Well, she used to be considered that, anyway. Last week, the Marion Jones I revered disappeared, and someone I didn’t recognize anymore admitted to taking, allegedly without her knowledge, the performance enhancing steroid “The Clear,” of BALCO and San Fran­cisco Giants slug­g­er Barry Bonds notoriety.
To be honest, when I saw her tear-stained confession splashed across the nation’s sports pages, my first reaction was not rage or even sadness. I was just so profoundly disappointed (and in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll ad­mit that my own eyes might have gotten a little teary. I should also say that I am not a “crier.” Tears are for the weak, blah, blah, blah). It is the end of an era, the end of a cham­­pion and the end of my dream. So, let me tell you a li­t­­tle bit a­bout my Marion Jones.
It is taken for granted, post-Title IX, that little girls are taught that they can achieve anything — they can jump higher and they can run faster. But tell that to the mini-jocks hogging the slide and refusing to pass the ball to any girls on the team. Growing up, I knew that I would have to earn that respect on the on the field and in the gym. Where was my Michael Jordan, my Tiger Woods? Where was that woman who was so much better than anyone else that no one even thought to bring up the “W” word?
And then, there was Marion.
For me, Marion represented everything I wanted to achieve when I “grew up,” whenever that would be. She was strong, both physically and in presence. When she stepped on the track everyone stopped what they were doing to stare. She ran, not with par­ticular grace, but with a pow­er that had its own sort of beauty. And I was going to be ex­actly like her.
Best birth­day pres­ents? Easy: something to do with Marion. I have Marion biographies, trading cards and posters. (David Rubin, if you’re reading this, that Marion-autographed baseball cap you gave me for my 14th is still my favorite gift of all time.) I clipped pictures out of Sports Illustrated and taped them to my ceiling. I spray-painted my old sneakers metallic silver, the color of her cleats in the 2000 Summer Olympics. I got a bit obsessive.
You see, Marion never disappointed me, because when she won, she won with defiance and control, but when she lost, she lost with quiet dignity and as much grace as any superstar athlete can muster these days.
And yes, perhaps there were warning signs that a less star-struck fan would have picked up on. She married (but then divorced) Olympic shot putter (whoa, red flag right there) C.J. Hunter, now a convicted steroid user. Her coaches, current and former, became caught up in their own drug scandals, one-by-one. The father of her baby, disgraced Olympic sprinter Tim Montgomery, is currently awaiting sentencing on drug charges.
But through it all, as the media yelped and snapped at her heels, my Marion stayed cool. And like a fool, I held on to the childish hope that all the rumors were really just vicious lies perpetrated by jealous detractors. No positive drug test meant no drugs, right? Marion continued to calmly deny everything, and dared anyone to find evidence to the contrary.
And then, finally, they did.
And my question is, why, Marion? Why did you think you needed to do that, to cheat, to lower yourself to the same level as all those other cheaters? Was it peer pressure, spouse pressure, some other kind of pressure? Did you feel like you had to dope to stay up with the competition? I don’t know what you were thinking and maybe if I did I’d feel a little bit better. But probably not. Because there is never any excuse to cheat. Sports are built on integrity, and without this, they are nothing but shallow exhibitions of artificial ability.
There’s also the question of how you thought you were going to get away with this? Today, you can’t go more than a few days without some new sports star quickly tarnishing in the harsh media glare of gambling scandals, drug scandals and even assault charges. I guess we should all be immune to it by now. I get it, alright, I get it: sports stars are human, just like us. You drink like us, fight like us and electrocute dogs like us (well, some of us). But my point is these spoiled idiots don’t get to me anymore. At least, that’s what I thought.
Marion was supposed to be better than that. She was that star who would raise track andfField up out of an undeserved obscurity. In fact, this may have been the first time you’ve ever even heard of the other M.J. Pre-roids, I would have believed that to be a horrible travesty. She was a role model. She was the five-medal wonder. She was Superwoman.
And she was dirty.
You were my hero, Marion, and the hero of so many other young girls like me. We sat in front of television sets all across America and cheered as you put everyone around you to shame. We just wanted to believe that the boys don’t always have to win.
So don’t judge me for crying over my late-night SportsCenter updates. I guess Marion Jr.’s in the market for a new nickname now. Any ideas?