Qualifying for events a clear struggle

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Once nearly invincible, Marion Jones
is becoming more beatable with each event at the U.S. Olympic track

Jones, who won an unprecedented five medals at the 2000 Sydney
Games and had talked of trying to match that haul in Athens, could
go home empty handed -- if she goes to the Summer Games at all.

She won the 100 four years ago. This time, she didn't qualify.
She won the 200 four years ago. She'll try to qualify in that event
starting Friday, but her stamina is in question after she seemed to
fade toward the end of the 100.

And she was a bronze medalist in the long jump in 2000. On
Monday night, Jones could do no better than seventh in the trials'
qualifying round -- in an event in which only one other American has
reached the Olympic qualifying standard this year.

The adulation that used to surround her is gone, while
suspicions of drug use have clouded her career. In what should be
her prime years as an athlete, the 28-year-old Jones now seems to
receive as much sympathy as awe.

She never smiled or showed much expression during her three
jumps Monday. She never seemed to soar. As in the 100 two days
earlier, she seemed to lack an extra gear.

Jones strode across the field after her jumps, hiding under a
white cap as she was escorted by a meet official. She ducked under
a tent and disappeared under the stands, avoiding the "mixed
zone" where reporters awaited her.

She looked like a woman under duress, and there's ample reason
for that.

Four years after being the golden girl of the Sydney Games and a
year after triumphantly announcing she was returning to the sport
just weeks after giving birth, she is being probed for possible
drug use and her performances have plummeted.

"I don't know what she's going through right now. I don't envy
her at all with all the distractions that she has out there," said
Grace Upshaw, the only other U.S. long jumper who has met the
qualifying standard this season.

"I think she's a great athlete, and she's a mom," Upshaw said
Tuesday. "That's what blows my mind. She had a baby and she's out
here being competitive, and I think that's awesome."

Jones' troubles began in the winter of 2003, when she was a few
months pregnant. She and her boyfriend, 100 world record holder Tim
Montgomery, had an acrimonious split with coach Trevor Graham and
for a short time worked with disgraced coach Charlie Francis -- who
supplied steroids to Ben Johnson in the 1980s.

After getting pressure from world track officials, Jones and
Montgomery severed their ties to Francis. Her reputation seemed
intact, especially in the glow of her new motherhood last summer.

But then the BALCO steroid scandal unfolded. Jones and
Montgomery both testified last fall before a grand jury probing the
Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative.

Montgomery, who failed to qualify for the Olympics in the 100 on
Sunday, has been charged by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency with
steroid use and faces a lifetime ban if found guilty. Jones has not
been charged by USADA, but remains under investigation.

Jones and Montgomery both repeatedly have denied using banned

But Jones' reputation is in tatters and her career is
threatened. Her ex-husband and ex-coach both are talking to federal
agents in the BALCO case.

In early June, International Olympic Committee President Jacques
Rogge said although Jones was "technically innocent," she showed
poor judgment in becoming involved with people linked to doping

U.S. hurdler Allen Johnson came to Jones' defense Tuesday.

"I feel it's an unfortunate situation that a lot of people find
themselves in," he said. "It's not fair to drag somebody through
the mud because of who they fall in love with."

Jones' troubles have continued on the track -- and the field -- at
the Olympic trials.

Though Jones was one of 12 competitors who advanced to the long
jump final on Thursday night and remains likely to make the U.S.
team, she failed by a quarter-inch to reach the automatic
qualifying mark, and got worse with each of her three jumps.

Jones surpassed 22 feet in high school, and won Olympic bronze
with a leap of 22-8½ four years ago, but could do no better than
20-11¾ on Monday night.

She has the numbers on her side in the long jump. Though her
qualification is no longer certain, it would take an extraordinary
series of events to deprive her of a place on the U.S. squad.

Under qualifying rules, Jones provisionally can make the Olympic
team even if she fails to place among the top three Thursday night.
That's because only she and Upshaw have Olympic qualifying marks
this season.

So, even if Jones finishes last among the 12 competitors in
Thursday's final, she'll still be named to the squad if no other
jumper has reached the Olympic qualifying mark.

But, in that scenario, the top two finishers Thursday still
could bump her from the team if they get the qualifying mark of 21
feet, 11¾ inches by Aug. 9.

It's a shockingly vulnerable position for a woman who once was
nearly unbeatable in the sprints and was among the world's best in
the long jump.

"She's a great athlete. She's coming back from a pregnancy.
She's got a new coach. She has other things that she's dealing
with," Craig Masback, chief executive of USA Track & Field, said
Tuesday. "This is a sport where you want to do your best. As
someone who's struggling to achieve their best, you feel for her."