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Marion can save the Games

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© St. Petersburg Times, published September 24, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia -- See her smile. See her leap, her fist punching the air of a cool Australian evening. Now ask yourself. Isn't that better, really, than the Alabama-Arkansas game?

See her weep. See the tears roll down her cheeks as she looks at the face of her mother. Admit it. Isn't that better than the American League wild-card race?

See her run. See Marion Jones, the golden girl in silver shoes, fly down the track with the rest of the world giving chase. Come on. Isn't that better than watching Beastmaster III on Cinemax?

Here she is, and there she goes. Just watch her now. She's running for gold; she's running for glory. Oh, yeah. And one more thing.

Marion Jones is running to save the Olympics.

We need a hero around here. We need someone to grab the attention and stir the imagination. We need someone who can overcome football, baseball and school nights. We need someone who can make you believe in miracles instead of the remote control.

We need, in other words, a few more efforts like this.

Marion the Marvelous tried her best Saturday. She blistered the field in the women's 100-meter final, capturing the first of a planned five gold medals. She flashed her undeniable star power. Even better, she made you want to look.

For a week, the Olympics have been waiting for this. Oh, Ian Thorpe applied for the job. And Inge de Bruijn. To date, however, there has not been an athlete to stamp his or her personal brand on these Games, an athlete with sufficient personality and performance to boost the interest rating -- not to mention television ratings -- of an Olympics where the timing seems all wrong.

Give Jones this much. She'll make you look. And she'll make you glad you did.

Consider the 100 meters, Jones' first chance to win -- or to stumble -- in an Olympics in which she has talked of winning five golds. She dominated, and her time of 10.75 seconds was .37 faster than runner-up Ekaterini Thanou of Greece, the widest margin since the 1952 Olympics.

Given her ambition, you might think Jones would treat this as a relief, as little more than a first step. Instead, she treated it like it was the first journey to a magic land. So what if she wants to come back four more times?

"I've been dreaming of this for 19 years," she said. "The first thing I felt was joy. All the cold days in Raleigh (N.C.), all the hard days, the miserable days, were all for something. Then I looked over and saw my family, and I just lost it."

Funny. For days Jones had sat in her apartment and watched the competition. She told her husband, C.J. Hunter, that when her time came, she was going to play it cool. She was going to be ice.

"Then I crossed the line, and all of that went out the window."

There is something genuine about Jones, something warm, something that makes you feel her joy and her tears. The magnetic personalities can do that. Contrast that with Maurice Greene, who won the men's 100-meter dash with his flash and bravado. With Jones, you feel she's acting on emotion; with Greene, you feel he's simply acting. But even Greene admires the standards Jones has set for herself.

"I wouldn't try it," he said. "I was worn out in Seville, Spain, at the world championships last year running the 100, the 200 and the relays. She's a phenomenal athlete. It's going to take a phenomenal athlete. I just hope her body holds up and doesn't break down."

That's one of the dangers. Another is her teammates. After Saturday, when no other American woman qualified for the 100, when few other American women ran well at all, the U.S. relay teams seem to be in trouble. After one day, it is those races instead of the dreaded long jump that seem to stand in the way of her five golds.

"Can't I enjoy this for a couple of minutes?" Jones said. And the answer is no. She doesn't have time.

From the look of it, she also doesn't have pressure. To some, this would have been the toughest climb, the first of five peaks on her itinerary. Can you imagine the outcry if Jones had called her shot five times, then stumbled out of the gate?

"You guys have no idea how much pressure there was," she said.

It didn't appear that way. Jones had an average start, but she was in control all the way, and all her competitors could do for most of the race was watch the heels of her silver slippers -- think of Dorothy as a Raiders fan -- fading into the distance.

Someone suggested the word "relief" to Jones. She shook her head.

"I don't see it as a relief," she said. "I'm having a ball. This is not a stressful time in my life. This is a very happy time in my life. I had my moment. It's incredible, and it's something I'll cherish the rest of my life."

Oh, Jones might get a dose of criticism today. After all, the first flag she grabbed was that of Belize, the country of her mother. Then she grabbed the American flag and waved them both. "I'm half Belizean," she said. But Americans are a finicky lot about their sports heros. We don't want to share the stage with anyone.

But even that moment seemed genuine. If it had been a well-thought-out, Nike kind of moment, you can rest assured Jones would have carried only the American flag. Or one with a swoosh on it.

So don't nitpick. Just enjoy the moment as Jones celebrated. Enjoy the way she looked, long and lovingly, at the gold medal around her neck.

"I really wanted to inspect it," she said. "I've seen other athletes glance over their medals. I've dreamt a long time about what it would look like. There are no rough edges. It's very smooth. It's glamorous."

You could say the same things, of course, about Jones. She plans to rule the week to come, to gaze at more medals, to wave more flags.

Maybe you should pay attention.

Heck, you can always tape Beastmaster.

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