America loves a comeback story and few can compete with the tumultuous rise, fall and return of Marion Jones. Once a media darling, the disgraced Olympic sprinter lost the five medals she won at the 2000 Summer Games after admitting she used performance-enhancing drugs. When Jones had previously lied about that to federal investigators (as well as her role in a check-fraud case), she was sentenced to six months in prison. After a difficult incarceration that included a demoralizing seven-week stint in solitary confinement, she was released in the fall of 2008. Less than two years later Jones rebounded as a professional basketball player in the WNBA, capping a fittingly swift turnaround for the former world champion sprinter.
The compelling story is the subject of this week's edition of ESPN's documentary series 30 For 30, which presents Jones as a woman who has overcome odds that were largely out of her hands and whose entire downfall was connected to a single bad decision. Though it is only addressed in passing in the film, Jones still contends that she never "knowingly" took performance-enhancing drugs, a claim that the judge in her case and many track and field observers find preposterous given her years of experience in the drug-riddled sport and her forceful personality. She maintains that her coach at the time told her he was giving her flaxseed oil, and she believed him. In fact it was a cutting-edge performance-enhancing anabolic steroid that was at the time undetectable by drug tests. "Marion Jones is the toughest woman I've ever been around, she knew exactly what she was up to. She was in control of her surroundings," says sportswriter Ron Rapoport, who wrote a biography of Jones and is the only voice in the film to question her statements. "I suppose it's possible that somebody slipped her a mickey, but that's not the Marion Jones I know."
Because her sentence seemed so harsh (and because she had to leave her young children to serve the jail time) and thanks to her telegenic, engaging personality, Jones' mea culpa has been largely embraced by the media. Oscar-nominated director John Singleton pitched the idea for his 30 For 30 doc, Marion Jones: Press Pause, because he felt she was excessively punished even as high-profile male athletes caught up in drug scandals have essentially avoided criminal prosecution.
Though he calls Jones' use of steroids "an unforgivable violation of trust and faith that we invested in her as fans," Singleton is largely sympathetic. (The director appears in the film, often directly addressing the camera in a clumsy format.) Press Pause presents a portrait of a woman humbled by her experiences, but still possessing her signature swagger and determination. She used that resolve to make an impressive return to competitive sports, whipping herself back into basketball shape (she played at North Carolina in the 1990s, helping the Tar Heels win the 1994 NCAA title) and earning a roster spot on the WNBA's Tulsa Shock.
Singleton joins a chorus of supporters for Jones: She had softball interviews with Oprah Winfrey before and after her incarceration, Good Morning America's Robin Roberts has become a vocal cheerleader in gushing interviews, and ESPN's coverage of Jones' rookie WNBA season was frequently fawning.
Currently on a media tour to support her new book, On the Right Track, Jones encourages young people to "take a break" and consider all options and consequences before making decisions that can change their lives forever. Clearly she really wants the public on her side, but the one-time "world's fastest woman" is still playing catch-up.
Marion Jones: Press Pause airs Tuesday at 8/7c on ESPN.