Only the truly naive will believe this version of Jones' story

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- In September 2000, Marion Jones sat beside then-husband C.J. Hunter at a news conference in Sydney, Australia, that had been hastily called to address charges that Hunter, the Olympic shot-putter, had failed several drug tests. Jones said a few loving things about her husband, then left him to face the media alone while asking them to respect her privacy.

Hunter's drug use had left Jones under a cloud. But the beau who eventually replaced him, Tim Montgomery, left her facing something much more serious Friday: a U.S. judge. And this time, there was no stage for Marion to exit. The only available doors were blocked by federal marshals.

Dressed in a black pantsuit and pink blouse, Jones leaned into a microphone to admit that she had lied to agents who were investigating a stolen check ring by telling them she didn't know Montgomery had deposited two bogus checks worth $225,000 into their accounts.

And that was only half of what she'd come to court to confess. Jones, 31, was also there to admit that she had misled federal agents about the drugs she was taking that tumultuous day in Sydney -- when she was so guarded about her secrets that she had to flee her husband's side.

After she pleaded guilty to two counts of making false statements to federal agencies, the recently remarried Jones, now Marion Jones-Thompson, faced a phalanx of cameras in her own disgrace. Tearfully announcing that she is retiring from track, she told whatever fans she might have left, "I was dishonest, and you have the right to be mad with me."

But only the hopelessly naive -- and the feds in that courtroom aren't naive -- could really believe the story that passed for her full confession. Facing U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Karas, the Olympic medalist insisted that her then-coach, Trevor Graham, gave her a supplement from BALCO that he told her was flaxseed oil. She had no idea, she said, that it was really the designer steroid THG.

"I trusted Graham and didn't ask any questions," she continued in a strong voice. It was only after she split from the coach in August 2001, she said, that she noticed she wasn't able to work out as hard as she once did, and her performances were falling off. By November 2003, when the feds called her into the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Jose, Calif., after a raid on BALCO, she said, "I knew he'd given me performance-enhancing drugs."

The problem with this scenario is that a wide array of documents seized from BALCO indicates that she was taking more than just THG in 2000 and 2001. According to doping calendars, she was also on insulin and a testosterone rub known as the "cream." There was also the growth hormone BALCO owner Victor Conte said he personally watched her inject in a California motel room in April 2001. Conte said he and Jones talked in-depth about it; Jones filed a $25 million lawsuit against Conte for those accusations, a suit that eventually was settled out of court.

Those inconsistencies weren't addressed Friday. Instead, Jones-Thompson -- an elite athlete trained to recognize hundredth-of-a-second differences in her reflexes -- was allowed to pretend she had no idea how she got so supercharged in Sydney. In this version of events, she is really the victim.

Maybe this is what plea deals are supposed to be all about. The government gets her career, her livelihood and up to six months of her life in prison, all served up on a platter with the five medals the U.S. Olympic Committee announced it wants back. Jones-Thompson gets to continue to cling to her flaxseed-colored fantasies.

But there are some real issues remaining -- namely, how her plea will affect Graham's trial next month. On one level, her plea deal actually might serve to help her old coach because she has failed to show that he had knowledge of what he was giving her. Maybe that's why the feds raced out of the courtroom Friday at a pace that would have made Graham proud, rather than address how, if at all, Jones-Thompson's plea helps them in the long run.

Then there is the issue of Barry Bonds, still the big fish in this food chain. So far, no one has contradicted Conte's claim that Bonds, as far as he knew, never got BALCO's designer drugs. Does Jones-Thompson know something we don't? Did she tell it to the feds in exchange for this generous plea?

As she was hustled into a black limousine, Jones-Thompson ignored the questions that were shouted at her and left her Swiss-cheese confession to speak for all the unanswered questions that are still swirling swirl around her.

Shaun Assael writes about Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery and the whole cast of BALCO characters in his forthcoming book, "Steroid Nation," available here.