As she heads to prison, Jones remains a cautionary tale

In the spring of 2004, as the BALCO steroids scandal was beginning to come into full bloom, Olympic legend Marion Jones, buoyed by a team of lawyers and spin doctors, traveled to Colorado Springs, Colo., to meet with officials from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

It was May 24, less than three months before the 2004 Olympic Summer Games in Athens, and USADA was zeroing in on athletes it believed had used performance-enhancing drugs obtained from Victor Conte of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative. The anti-doping agency, aided by documentary evidence seized as part of the government's budding case against Conte, had about a half dozen presumed drug cheats on its list. None was a bigger name than Jones.

Eight days earlier, Jones had firmly, eloquently and indignantly told a throng of journalists at the Olympic Media Summit in New York that she would sue if there was an attempt to keep her from competing in Athens based on some "hunch." Without a hint of deceit, she said, "I know that I've always been drug-free, I am drug-free and I want to continue to be drug-free."

Now, Jones and her lawyers sat across a table from Terry Madden, then the chief executive of USADA, and Travis Tygart, the agency's general counsel. The woman who won five medals, three of them gold, at the 2000 Sydney Olympics deflected everything USADA threw at her -- calendars, blood test results, ledgers, statements to investigators. She dismissed them all.

"I'll never forget how adamant she was that any document that she was looking at or evidence that we showed her, she absolutely denied," said Madden, who recently retired after serving seven years as USADA's top executive. "We were absolutely sure she was lying, but she was an extremely poised individual. Frankly, she became a practiced liar. She tried to hoodwink the American public for a period of three to four years."

On Friday, as a result of her lies, Jones reported to the Federal Medical Center Carswell, located on the Naval Air Station, Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth. The prison, about 190 miles north of Jones' home in Austin, specializes in medical and mental health services, but also houses inmates who do not require such care.
Track and field's golden girl will serve a six-month sentence.

Jones' free fall from grace stands in stark contrast to the path taken by Kelli White, who in the summer of 2003 had become the first American woman ever to win the 100- and 200-meter races at the world championships. White's name was on that short list of alleged dopers compiled by USADA, too, and the agency confronted her with BALCO documents not long before it met with Team Jones.

Unlike Jones, though, White became a truth-teller. She had admitted her doping to the government at the onset of the BALCO case, and she stayed that course when challenged by USADA in May 2004. White had struggled with the decision to admit her sins publicly, but the weight of the evidence and her conscience finally led her to come clean.

She admitted cheating her way to the top, confessing to the use of an array of performance enhancers, and accepted a two-year ban from competition that saw her world titles wiped off the books. White, though, used the public vetting to regain control of her life, first by becoming part of the anti-doping movement and later by going back to college.

Now, in the coming months, she is scheduled to complete an MBA program -- even as Jones serves her prison term.

Jones is the first athlete to be imprisoned in connection with the BALCO case. Of all the unforeseen images spawned by sports' steroids scandals -- from the congressional odysseys of Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens to the indictment of Barry Bonds -- this might be the most unexpected.

After the 2000 Sydney Games, Jones had become the rare track and field athlete: A star. Someone who, in a country dominated by the NFL and Major League Baseball, had emerged as an American darling. Gold medalist. Cover girl. Hero to young girls everywhere. Walking ad campaign. Millionaire. She was Marion Jones Inc.

When she returned from Australia, Jones graced the cover of Vogue as the picture of femininity and strength, sporting a form-fitting, sequined red dress. A headline proclaimed her "THE NEW AMERICAN HERO." Inside, along with photos taken by Annie Leibovitz, a story announced, "Hail Marion: Marion Jones isn't just the fastest woman in the world -- she's determined to be the greatest female athlete in history."

Jones is now wearing government-issued garb for telling not one, but two separate sets of lies to federal officials. First, she lied to agents working on the BALCO case about her performance-enhancing drug use. Then she lied to a separate constellation of law-enforcement types about her involvement in an unrelated check fraud scheme.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect about Jones' dissembling is the extent to which she worked to maintain her public persona, to give her adoring fans the impression that she was a victim. The lies and the attacks on her accusers were relentless, both from her lawyers and from her own mouth, and they revealed a woman whose nerve seemed to know no bounds. That stance four years ago, coupled with her eventual guilty plea last October, has served to cast doubt on just about every other athlete who insists he or she never touched a performance enhancer in their life -- including the recent similarly adamant denials from Roger Clemens.

In many ways, Clemens' tactics in dealing with allegations he used performance-enhancing drugs seem to come straight out of Jones' playbook. He has forcefully and unequivocally denied that he has ever cheated; he has sued his accuser; he has lobbied politicians and employed a powerful Washington lawyer/strategist. Simply, he has gone on the offensive. And now he's the target of a perjury investigation led by the FBI.

Jones' public denials began in earnest in April 2004, when the San Francisco Chronicle published a story linking her to performance enhancers from BALCO. Her attorney, Joseph Burton, called the piece "character assassination of the worst kind."

Days of unyielding denials ensued. After USADA acquired some of the BALCO evidence from federal investigators, Burton trumpeted the development as "great news," stating that Jones' "sworn testimony confirms what she has said all along -- that she is drug-free."

On May 18 of that year, Burton wrote to USADA, requesting a meeting in which he decried a "witch hunt" and the "corrosive air of suspicion" bearing down on Jones. The next day, White made her confession that she'd used performance enhancers and agreed to testify against other athletes.

In her meetings with USADA, as she mulled whether to cut a deal, White worried she would suffer while others -- namely Jones -- got away with cheating. Lawyers for other BALCO athletes had called White's attorney, urging him to fight USADA and suggesting that a prolonged legal battle would enable White to compete in Athens despite the evidence she faced.

Three days after White reached her agreement with USADA, Jones said: "What amazes me is that people are praising her for her courage in admitting she took steroids. She's being punished for doing something wrong, but what's courageous about it?"

Tygart, now USADA's chief executive, told ESPN recently: "The ones that were fighting us were mad. They were angry that [White] broke ranks. You hear about the code of silence, this code among athletes who are cheating that they don't tell on each other, the den of thieves."

On May 24, Jones and her attorneys met with Madden and Tygart of USADA for several hours. Within 30 minutes of the end of that meeting, Burton was on a teleconference with reporters, ripping the anti-doping agency.

In addition to Burton, Team Jones was being directed by Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani, a pair of political operatives who are said to earn up to $100,000 per month as the ultimate crisis communications team. Among his string of messy cases, Lehane, aka "The Master of Disaster," guided Bill Clinton through the Monica Lewinsky debacle.

"Every public representation we have ever made on behalf of any client has been made with the belief and understanding that it was accurate," Lehane wrote in a recent e-mail to ESPN. Of Jones, he said, there was a feeling she was being unfairly targeted and, thus, an aggressive posture seemed appropriate.

Lehane's group used its Washington pull to bring heat on USADA, tried to learn as much as possible about the organization's top officials and suggested that, because the organization received government funding, Congress should investigate its conduct. Ultimately, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., was persuaded to call for a probe of the anti-doping agency, though the inquiry never got off the ground.

Meanwhile, because its rules precluded it from commenting publicly about ongoing cases, officials of USADA said virtually nothing.

"As the CEO of the organization, it was extremely difficult," Madden said. "You have 38 to 40 employees, and your family reads this in the newspaper, and you run into friends and neighbors at school and at church, and they are all asking you what's going on. About all you can say is, 'Be patient; the truth will come out in the end.'"

In June 2004, Team Jones continued with its attacks. First, Burton called on USADA to back down, to be "fair" and recognize that Jones' accomplishments were a product of her "God-given talents." Next, the lawyer asked the U.S. Attorney's office in Northern California to release Jones' grand jury testimony from the BALCO case because it would prove his client "never, ever used performance-enhancing drugs."

On June 16, Jones held a news conference in San Francisco, denouncing USADA as a "kangaroo court" and repeating her denials that she had ever used banned substances. Burton said, "USADA can run but it can't hide."

That afternoon, Jones took a lie-detector test, according to Burton, and a report was made public the next day as part of yet another mass press release. Included was a "polygraph fact sheet," which noted that:

• Polygraph exams are used extensively by law-enforcement agencies at all levels to make determinations in charging criminal defendants.

• Polygraph exams have been used by the Department of Defense and other intelligence agencies for more than half a century.

• The average pass rate for people charged with crimes is "probably less than 5 [percent]."

The report itself was written by Ronald R. Homer, whose résumé indicated he had spent 21 years as a special agent/polygraph examiner for the FBI. Homer wrote that Jones had been asked "the following relevant questions":

A. Did you ever personally use performance-enhancing drugs? Answer: No.

B. Are you now lying about any personal use of performance-enhancing drugs? Answer: No.

Homer wrote that, in his analysis, the responses were "not indicative of deception." He added that "it is my professional opinion that Ms. Jones was truthful when answering the above-listed relevant questions."

Contacted recently by ESPN, Homer said he could not comment on the Jones case because his work had been done within the context of attorney-client privilege. Asked to speak generally about the effectiveness of polygraph examinations, Homer said, "I appreciate your interest, but I do not want to get involved in this situation."

In the lead-up to the 2004 Summer Games, Jones published an illustrated autobiography, "Life in the Fast Lane." While the steroid accusations intensified, she used a full page in the book to declare in bold, red, capital letters, "I am against performance enhancing drugs. I have never taken them and I never will."

Ultimately, USADA brought charges against four athletes based on evidence from the BALCO files. Jones was not among them, and Lehane said recently he believes that was testament to the forceful posture taken by Team Jones.

Asked recently if he now sees that as troubling or rather simply as evidence of a job well done, Lehane responded by e-mail, "It is impossible to really answer that from a Monday Morning QB perspective. You make decisions in real time based on what you have been told and in fact believe is the case."

In early December 2004, Victor Conte went on ABC's "20/20" and vividly described how he provided Jones with an array of performance enhancers, and explained how he taught her to inject human growth hormone with a new device. Two weeks later, Jones filed a $25 million lawsuit against Conte. The next day, her people called on the BALCO chief to take a lie-detector test.

In a news release carrying the headline, "JONES TEAM ISSUES CHALLENGE TO VICTOR CONTE," lawyer Rich Nichols wrote, "It is easy to go on national television and, as the lawsuit states, make 'false,' 'malicious' and 'misleading' statements designed to do harm to Ms. Jones' character and reputation -- however, it is quite another matter to take a polygraph examination that will test whether one is a truthful person or an untruthful person who engages in deception."

The lawsuit against Conte was settled out of court less than two months after it was filed. A nondisclosure agreement was attached and no money is believed to have changed hands -- a testament to the public-relations ruse it had been in the first place. Still, it wasn't until nearly three years later that Jones' charade was exposed completely.

To many, the moment came completely out of the blue.

In the interim, White, the fallen world champion, had long since moved on with her life and tried to turn her disgrace into something positive. After admitting her sins to USADA and the public in May 2004, she took up the anti-doping cause as part of her negotiated settlement. She told her story at public forums and at televised town halls. She went on national television and wept. She testified at anti-doping conventions and in the halls of Congress.

"I kind of feel like if you're going to come clean, come all the way clean," White told ESPN during a recent interview. "I think it helps everybody when you do because they get to hear the story. They get to hear the pain. They get to hear everything about it. And then hopefully it will deter other people from making the same decision."

White also managed to get her life back together. The two-year ban effectively ended her athletic career, and she turned her focus to a career in marketing. Thanks in part to a letter of recommendation from USADA, White was accepted into an MBA program, which she is scheduled to complete in the next several months.

But even as White regrouped, her fears that Jones would go untouched seemed to be coming true. By the fall of 2007 -- four years after she first lied to federal agents in the BALCO case -- Jones still had her records, her medals and her winnings. Although battered a bit, her reputation remained essentially intact.

All that changed on Friday, Oct. 5, the day Jones pleaded guilty in a White Plains, N.Y., courtroom to lying to federal agents in the BALCO and check fraud cases. Even then, she didn't appear to tell the full story. She minimized her drug use and blamed her coach, Trevor Graham, for initially deceiving her into believing she was taking legal substances.

"That was all part of a continuing act and lie to the American people," Madden said. "That was a continuation of lying. I agree with the federal judge who indicated that she has never been forthcoming with everything she did in the world of track and field to cheat her fellow competitors."

Still, the sight of a weeping Jones standing on the steps of the federal courthouse, apologizing to her fans, was a startling turn. White watched in disbelief. She, too, had trouble swallowing Jones' tale. ("If that's the story she wants to tell, that's the story she wants to tell," she said, laughing lightly.) White said she felt sad about the whole episode. The scene, though, also served to reinforce for White that she'd made the right decision four years earlier when she decided to stop the lies.

Three days after Jones pleaded guilty, White called Tygart at USADA. He was in a closed-door meeting, but cut it off immediately when he heard White was waiting on the phone.

"Thank you," White said. "As much as I hate to see this and it is bad for track and field, thank you."

White recalled their meetings in the spring of 2004, when Tygart and his colleagues had promised to hold accountable other athletes who had cheated. Tygart asked what else White thought about the Jones case.

"Well, you know, the best thing is I will never have to check the box," White said.

Tygart knew what she meant, but he asked anyway: "What box are you talking about?"

Said White: "The box on the employment application where they ask if you have ever been convicted of a felony."

Mark Fainaru-Wada, co-author of "Game of Shadows," is a reporter for ESPN. Previously, he was an investigative reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle. He can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com.