As someone constrained to play half-court basketball while a child, my own experience with organized, competitive sports came late and did not last terribly long. In senior year my high school finally got 'round to organizing a girls' track team. Taking time off from our weekly pilgrimages to the well-manicured gridirons where the boys played under bright lights before huge crowds, we few girls donned mens' Tiger flats (neither cushioned shoes nor women's runners were yet available) and 1-piece jumper-culottes that resembled today's running togs far less than they did the pantsuit (above right) that Amelia Bloomer promoted back in 1851. We trained by jogging 20 minutes' solid -- gasp! -- in school corridors, not only because winters in Illinois are pretty darn cold but also because the boys often enjoyed 1st dibs on the track. Every once in a while we competed, posting times that would dazzle no sports enthusiast.
Only 2 events worth mentioning in my running career, such as it was: a tiny-font notice on the sports pages of The Daily Illini, recording for all time my role on the winning 4 x 400m relay team at an intramural meet; and completion years later of the San Francisco Marathon. Still, playing a small part in track and field provided a kind of fun that was all too rare for girls before the entrenchment Title IX's proclamation of equality in sport.
And so it's spurred great sadness to watch the downfall of Marion Jones, winner at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, of 5 medals -- bronzes in the long jump and 4 x 100m relay and golds in the 100m and 200m sprints and in that event in which I'd competed, the 4 x 400m relay. A week ago Friday, Jones (above left), who's just marked her 32d birthday, appeared in federal court in New York and pleaded guilty to investigators about her use of steroids at the time of her record achievements. Soon after she returned the 5 Olympic medals. And with the same swiftness that used to mark changes in power at the Kremlin, Jones' record has begun to disappear: she's been deleted from the USA Track & Field website, and WikiPedia's already slapped over the returned medals banners of pink (odd color choice) proclaiming "Disqualified."
Gotta say, gotta problem with this vanishing act.
1st, it bears repeating the crime to which Jones pleaded guilty was not steroid use. That wasn't a crime at the time (though it did violate private-sports-association rules). Rather, the crime was lying to federal agents, the Catch-22 that's caught many otherwise unconvicted individuals, among them the back-in-lucrative-business Martha Stewart (right) and the presidentially pardoned Scooter Libby.
2d, the conduct to which Marion Jones confessed, and of which baseball champion Barry Bonds and innumerable Tour de France cyclists remain accused, was rampant in sports at the times of these athletes' greatest achievements. Everybody who was anybody was doing it, and everybody who knew anything knew it. (Don't believe me? Then ask Ben Jonson. Or Arnold Schwarzenegger.) Even outside sports, performance enhancers, ranging from double espressos to double Scotches to harder stuff, are rampant. Of course it'd be preferable if athletes -- and lawyers, and doctors, and truck drivers -- did it all without such assistance. But does Jones deserve disappearance for having essentially played the game as it was played in her time?
3d, drugs or no, these athletes embodied the cliché poetry in motion. Focusing on Jones as an athlete and as a woman, the Washington Post's inestimable fashion critic, Robin Givhan (above left), wrote yesterday:
Any gawky lefthander who's tried batting a baseball, any sort-of-speedster who's competed in a race, has been transported when watching the likes of Bonds and Jonson and Jones. She's imagined the best athletic self that she would never be. That imagining is a large part of what spectator sports is all about, and for inviting it Jones deserves a place in memory. An asterisk? Fair enough. But not all-out erasure from sports history.
The female athletes who generally receive the majority of attention during the Olympics are the figure skaters and gymnasts. All of those athletes display incredible physical strength and prowess. But those sports have offered complicated and unconvincing definitions of womanliness, strength and femininity. It was satisfying to see that Jones's beauty registered amidst the grunting and sweating as she sprinted across the finish line without glitter makeup, a thousand hair barrettes or a costume designed by Vera Wang.