Track Star Marion Jones to Admit Steroid Use

Track star Marion Jones made sports history by winning five medals at the 2000 summer Olympics, but now she's scheduled to appear before a New York Court to plead guilty to lying to federal agents about her use of performance enhancing drugs. Her confession comes after The Washington Post published contents of a letter Jones sent to family and friends in which she admitted doping and talked about her court date.

Tilting the Level Playing Field? It's Nothing New

A statue of a discus thrower at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. i i

The bronze statue of a discus thrower graced the Olympic Village at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. The model's contemporaries sought a competitive edge with hallucinogenic mushrooms and animal hearts. Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
A statue of a discus thrower at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.

The bronze statue of a discus thrower graced the Olympic Village at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. The model's contemporaries sought a competitive edge with hallucinogenic mushrooms and animal hearts.

Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
NBA official Tim Donaghy and Kobe Bryant i i

Cheating in sports is not confined to athletes. NBA ref Tim Donaghy (left), shown here working a playoff game in 2006, admitted cooperating with gamblers. Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
NBA official Tim Donaghy and Kobe Bryant

Cheating in sports is not confined to athletes. NBA ref Tim Donaghy (left), shown here working a playoff game in 2006, admitted cooperating with gamblers.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell's report on the "serious drug culture, from top to bottom," within Major League Baseball is just the latest evidence that sports are not always conducted on a level playing field.

The scandals may be disturbing, but they're really nothing new. Seeking an edge in sports is as old as the noble Olympiads. During the Greek games, athletes caught cheating paid fines. The money was used to erect statues of Zeus. These statues were placed along the passageway that led to the stadium, with the name of the cheater inscribed on their bases — a public humiliation, the precursor to bad press.

Some of the ancient Greek athletes were known to ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms — as well as animals' hearts and testicles — all to enhance performance, according to Charles Yesalis, professor of health and human development at Penn State, quoted in The Washington Post.

World's First Dopers

In other words, the ancient Greeks, fathers of democracy and Western culture, were also the world's first dopers. The Romans weren't much better. Gladiators used stimulants in the famed Circus Maximus (circa 600 B.C.) to overcome fatigue and injury.

In modern times, runners doped themselves with strychnine as early 1904.

Today's technology is, of course, more sophisticated. But the underlying problem remains the same: some athletes are willing to cheat to win, by doping or other means.

And not just athletes, by the way: NBA referee Tim Donaghy recently admitted that he cooperated with gamblers. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was penalized by the NFL for illegally videotaping coaching activities on the opposite sideline.

Some analysts say the reason for a seeming spurt in cheating is simple: the stakes are higher. Salaries and prize money are at record levels so, simply put, it pays to cheat. "It's more rational to take risks if the pay-off is very large," says David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture. "And as cheating spreads in a given sport, the non-cheaters feel they are paying a price for remaining honest."

Worse Than Dirty Politics

Judging from the media coverage, dirty athletes seem to evoke more public outrage than dirty politicians. That's because cheating in sports is more clear-cut than cheating in politics, says sportswriter Frank Deford, a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition. "We expect politicians to be dirty, and we realize that rap singers aren't moral paragons, but we want our sports to be clean. What all of these scandals have shown is that sports is no different from anything else."

Deford has a theory: Athletes taking part in individual sports, such as cycling or track, are more vulnerable to allegations of cheating than athletes taking part in team sports. In a team sport, the blame for any transgression can be spread around. Plus, "the team loyalty keeps you going year after year. That gives you a base, a foundation," he says. For individual athletes, there is no such redemption. They and they alone are to blame.

Sports scandals go to the heart of the American split personality, says Callahan. On the one hand, we value egalitarianism and fair play; on the other hand, we admire those who succeed, even if sharp elbows are employed in the climb to the top. "There is something very sacred about sports to America, a country infatuated with egalitarian ideals, at least on paper, so when sports are tarnished by cheating we are disillusioned."

The Games Go On

Perhaps, but none of the cheating scandals has made a dent in attendance figures, at least not in this country. NFL attendance is on the rise. A record number of fans are paying to watch big-league baseball, steroids notwithstanding. (NBA attendance has been flat; the Donaghy scandal broke during the off-season so it's too soon to measure its impact.)

But some think American sports fans will not tolerate this trend indefinitely.

"Most people still have great faith in the integrity of the game. If that is lost, it will eventually affect attendance," says Robert Simon, author of a book on cheating and sports. That has already happened in Europe, where professional cycling has suffered a major setback from the recent doping scandals at the Tour de France.

On the other end of the spectrum is golf: one sport that remains untainted by even a whiff of scandal. Golf retains a code of honor that seems almost quaint in this day of steroids and surreptitious videotaping. Golfers will call a penalty on themselves — if, for instance, they accidentally jostle their ball on the green — even if no one else witnessed the infraction.

Smith says we shouldn't make too much of the recent spike in cheating scandals. "We forget the thousands and thousands of games are played where people do the right thing," he says.

Deford agrees. "To suggest that we have descended to the depths of Hades all of a sudden, I wouldn't buy into that. These cheating scandals, though, do show that athletes are susceptible to the same kind of venality as the rest of us."

Olympian's Career Tainted by Steroid Allegations

Marion Jones crosses the finish line to win the gold medal in the 2000 Olympics. i i

Marion Jones crosses the finish line to win the gold medal at the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, on Sept. 23, 2000. Jones admitted she used steroids before the games in a recent letter to family and friends, The Washington Post reported Thursday. Kevin Frayer/AP/The Canadian Press hide caption

itoggle caption Kevin Frayer/AP/The Canadian Press
Marion Jones crosses the finish line to win the gold medal in the 2000 Olympics.

Marion Jones crosses the finish line to win the gold medal at the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, on Sept. 23, 2000. Jones admitted she used steroids before the games in a recent letter to family and friends, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

Kevin Frayer/AP/The Canadian Press

A 1995 Interview with Jones

Robert Siegel interviewed Marion Jones on All Things Considered in 1995.

The U.S. Olympic Team once dubbed Marion Jones "the world's fastest mom," but she could not run fast enough to escape the doping charges that have plagued her since she won five medals at the 2000 Olympics.

The three-time gold medal winner has now pleaded guilty Friday to charges connected to steroid use in a federal court in White Plains, N.Y. — after persistently denying that she ever used performance-enhancing drugs.

Jones acknowledged using steroids before the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney, Australia, in a letter to her family and friends, according to a story in The Washington Post.

"I want to apologize for all of this. I am sorry for disappointing you all in so many ways," the Post reported Jones said in the letter.

Early Success on the Track

It is an unexpected turn in the career of the Los Angeles, Calif., native, who has been a track and field star since high school in the early 1990s. Jones won the California state championship as a sprinter four years in a row, representing Rio Mesa and Thousand Oaks high schools.

After high school, she played basketball for the University of North Carolina. She was as much of a stand-out on the basketball court as she was in track and field, walking away with a NCAA title in her freshman season and a game average of 17.1 points in her sophomore year.

But Jones' passion was sprinting, and before the beginning of her junior year, she decided to leave the Tar Heels to concentrate on track and field. Four months later, Jones won the 100-meter at the 1997 World Championships in Athens, sprinting her way to victory in just 10.83 seconds.

Two years later, Jones won the gold medal in the 100-meter and the bronze medal in the long jump at the 1999 World Championship.

Three Gold Medals at Sydney Olympics

Her crowning athletic achievement was at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where she won three gold medals and two bronze medals.

But Jones passed another milestone three years later. On June 28, 2003, she and her then-boyfriend, Olympic sprinter Tim Montgomery, gave birth to a son.

The pregnancy and child birth did not slow her down. Jones said she worked out on the treadmill up until two days before she gave birth and was back in her running shoes by October.

Less than a year after her first child was born, Jones took the 100-meter Home Depot Invitational in Los Angeles – winning it in 10.99 seconds.

Jones, who turns 32 next week, is married to Olympic sprinter Obadele Thompson of Barbados. The couple live in Austin, Texas.

BALCO Case Taints Jones' Achievements

The content of Jones' letter was a stunning admission for an athlete who has been unequivocal in her denial that she cheated her way to Olympic stardom.

She went on the offensive in 2004, launching a high-profile public relations campaign when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency began investigating her.

She also filed a $25 million lawsuit against the owner of BALCO, the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, who admitted during a grand jury probe that he provided Jones with steroids. That case was later settled.

In the end, Jones and several of her colleagues were among those ensnared in the federal investigation of BALCO.

When a federal grand jury in San Francisco began to hear testimony in 2004, more allegations against Jones surfaced.

BALCO founder Victor Conte maintained he had seen Jones inject herself with steroids, as did her ex-husband.

But in the letter to her family and friends, Jones maintained that she did not know she had used the banned drugs until she stopped training with coach Trevor Graham at the end of 2002.

Jones said she lied to federal agents in 2003 because she panicked when they showed her a sample of a banned substance called "the clear" and realized it was what Graham had given her.

However, a 2004 report in the San Francisco Chronicle said that Jones' ex-husband, shot putting champion C.J. Hunter, admitted he used steroids and told a grand jury that Jones did, too.

Montgomery also testified before the BALCO grand jury and was given a two-year ban from track and field competitions for doping in 2005.

Graham was indicted in the BALCO case last year. He pleaded not guilty to three counts of lying to federal agents and is scheduled for trial Nov. 26.

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