Saturday, October 06, 2007

Do The Right Thing Marion, Return The Medals
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The buzz in the crowd at the stadium at Cerritos College near Los Angeles on that warm Saturday evening in June 1993 was electric. The more than 10,000 high school track buffs that packed the stands for the California state High School track and field championship were there almost to a person for one reason. They came to be thrilled by and to cheer the young high school phenom, Marion Jones. Her talent was prodigious and her reputation had gone far beyond high school track circles. On the track, she looked even then like a woman among girls. Her two sprint races were for the most part an exercise in going through the motions. Her victories were a foregone conclusion. The only question was would she set yet another record.
She didn’t disappoint.

Jones was magnificent that evening in her near record breaking double sprint wins. It was the fourth time that she accomplished the unprecedented fete, and the second time that I personally saw her do the double. After each win that evening, she flashed her trademark toothy smile to the wildly cheering crowd, and graciously took a short victory jog. Everyone, this writer included, just knew that we were not only witnessing history, but felt that we were in the presence of someone truly special. Jones added to that feeling by pulling a fete that no other track athlete had done. She copped the Gatorade Athlete of the Year Award for a second time. Being a track nut, I continued to closely follow, admire and cheer Jones on through her college and Olympic triumphs.
The lofty perch that she rested on that evening after her victories at the state championship meet never seemed more secure. With her special blend of seemingly awesome natural talent, grace, and personal charm, she seemed destined to stay on top for years to come. But even then there was a wisp of a cloud. After a high school championship meet in 1992, she failed to show up for a mandatory drug test.

That prompted a flurry of faint whispers that maybe there was more to Jones’s track reign than met the eye. But Jones moved fast, and hired famed attorney Johnnie Cochran to clear things up. Her failure to show was chalked up to a misunderstanding and quickly forgotten. As Jones continued to firm up her spot as America’s reigning track queen, the allegations and finger pointing gnawed deeper at her throne. But Jones always seemed to have the last word for the doubters and finger pointers. The word was always “it taint true.” If you still had doubts, there was her denial in big, bold print on page 173 of her 2004 autobiography, Marion Jones, Life in the Fast Lane, (The title told more than Jones intended). “I am against performance enhancing drugs. I have never taken them and I never will take them.”

The words, of course, were a bald faced lie. Her brutal plunge from public grace and adulation is a cautionary tale. In fact, it’s two cautionary tales. It a short misstep from public acclaim to public disgrace for superstar icons, and there’s no surer way to make that happen than to lie and cheat to win at all costs. And when the inevitable exposure happens, the public is merciless and pitiless in its wrath and contempt. Jones earned and deserved both.

Even her apology as sincere and heartfelt as it seemed, came only after she was legally pressed to the wall by the feds. The apology is even more galling because it was dumped on top of the years of her duck, dodge, and cover your backside denials, punctuated by lawsuits, and the threat of lawsuits against anyone who dared suggest that she was a cheater. It is even more galling because thousands of fans and admirers, myself included, fervently wanted to believe in her innocence and in blind faith charged her accusers with vicious rumor mongering and character assassination to defame and destroy the reputation of a young African-American woman who stood as an intelligent, poised and successful role model to many African-Americans and young women.

But Jones played us all, and that makes the hurt that she’s a self-admitted cheat and liar even more painful. Her track career is finished. She, of course, will plunge even deeper into financial ruin. She will likely serve a stretch in a federal pen. Now all that’s left is for the International Olympic Committee to drop the axe on her and strip her of the five Olympic medals that she won at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

Jones should not wait for that to happen. She should voluntarily return her Olympic medals. It won’t make her any less the cheater that she was, but her voluntary return of the medals will add real meaning to her public apology, help restore her name and integrity, and send a strong message that cheating and unfair play to win is not the Olympic and American way.

Marion, you owe yourself and your fans that much.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press, October 2007).