In latest chapter of a twisted saga, Jones is free to run

Friday, September 8th 2006, 10:01 am
By: News On 6

Marion Jones' career of triumph and suspicion is back on track, and she plans to waste no time getting back to work.

Jones is aiming to compete in the World Cup in Athletics in Athens Sept. 16-17 and a meet in Shanghai a week later, her coach Steve Riddick said late Thursday night.

``If she wants to compete she can. The lab said the B sample was negative,'' said IAAF President Lamine Diack on Friday, confirming Jones would skip the World Athletics Final before going to Athens next week.

Riddick had expected Jones to take the rest of the season off, then come back strong next season for the world championships _ and the 2008 Olympics. But Jones and agent Charles Wells contacted Riddick late Thursday and told him she wanted to run again this year.

``She wants to run, so we're training,'' said Riddick, who provides the workout plan for the sprinter.

Earlier, Riddick spoke about Jones' ability and return to prominence.

``She's a hell of an athlete,'' Riddick told The Associated Press, ``and I think people should just leave her alone.''

Once the darling of her sport, Jones' successful fight against her first positive drug test is the latest twist in a career of extreme highs and lows.

After competing for years under a cloud of suspicion, Jones tested positive for EPO June 23 at the U.S. track and field championships in Indianapolis, where she won the 100 meters, her 14th national title.

Jones, who turns 31 on Oct. 12, immediately requested a ``B'' sample be tested. Her attorney released a statement on Wednesday that the second test was negative, a result Jones said she was ``ecstatic'' about.

The tests were conducted at a UCLA laboratory that routinely examines samples for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Lab director Don Catlin did not return a telephone request for comment.

Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the International Olympic Committee medical commission and a member of the World Anti-Doping Association executive committee, called the reversal of the ``B'' sample ``quite unusual.''

``It's happened only a handful of times in the last 30 years I can remember, but it does happen,'' he said in a telephone interview with the AP. ``One needs to seek an explanation from the lab. ... For the time being, we can only speculate.''

In 2003, Kenyan distance runner Bernard Lagat pulled out of the 2003 world championships after news leaked that he had tested positive for EPO. He was later cleared, though, when the ``B'' test was negative, and won the national 1,500-meter title in Indianapolis this year.

USA Track & Field, the sport's national governing body, had little to say about Jones' case.

``We respect the USADA process,'' spokeswoman Jill Geer said, ``and when an athlete's `B' does not confirm the `A' there is no doping offense. So in Marion's case, there is no doping offense.''

Ljungqvist defended the EPO testing system.

``The science of the method as such has been validated and confirmed as absolutely safe and OK, but it's not unusual in the life of a laboratory that incidents may occur,'' he said. ``The test does have some pitfalls as respect to the interpretation.''

It remains unclear which test _ the ``A'' or ``B'' _ ultimately is accurate.

``We certainly know there are situations where the A and B may not necessarily look the same,'' Ljungqvist said. ``One doesn't know if the A is the correct analysis and the B is incorrect, or vice versa. That's the open question.''

Jones' negative ``B'' sample has done nothing to shake USADA's faith in the testing process, general counsel Travis Tygart said.

``We have full confidence in the EPO test, we stay abreast or ahead of the science involved, and we'll continue using it going forward,'' he said.

Under U.S. regulations, an athlete's `A' test results are supposed to remain confidential until not only the `B' sample is tested, but a review hearing is conducted. However, IAAF rules require the provisional suspension of the athlete following an initial positive drug test, and that often leads to media leaks _ especially on high-profile athletes.

Jones has been a person of interest to USADA for years. She testified to the federal grand jury investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative in San Francisco. Her boyfriend at the time, former world 100-meter record holder Tim Montgomery, also testified and later was suspended from competition for two years, although he never tested positive for a banned substance.

Montgomery announced his retirement but has resumed training and would be eligible to compete again next summer.

``I think he will,'' Riddick said. ``He ain't training for his health.''

With a mix of charm and talent, Jones was the sport's biggest personality in the late 1990s. At the Sydney Games in 2000, she became the first woman to win five Olympic track medals, three of them gold.

Her coach at the time was Trevor Graham, who has trained a long list of athletes who have tested positive for drugs, including 2004 Olympic gold medalist Justin Gatlin this year.

Jones' husband back then, shot putter C.J. Hunter, tested positive for steroids. At a news conference in Sydney, an emotional Hunter tried to explain away the results, aided by none other than Victor Conte, identified then as his nutritionist.

Conte founded BALCO and, in a television interview, said he designed a steroid regimen for Jones at the Sydney Olympics.

She responded with a $25 million slander lawsuit against him, a case that was settled out of court. When Jones' EPO ``A'' test results became known, Conte sent out an e-mail saying, ``I have always told the truth regarding my relationship with Marion Jones.''

Now, though, Jones is free to resume her career, still vehemently denying she ever took banned performance enhancers.

``They're trying to make her guilty by association,'' Riddick said.

Jones took 2003 off to have a baby, and struggled in her return in 2004, making the Olympic team only in the long jump. She also was part of the U.S. 400-meter relay team in Athens. She failed to medal in the long jump and the relay team was disqualified because of a botched handoff from Jones to Lauryn Williams.

Injuries plagued her poor 2005 season, but she came back strong this year.

``She trains hard,'' Riddick said. ``I always said once you have a baby you have to almost rebuild your base _ your abs and hip muscles. I think she was just about where she wanted to be.''

Riddick said Jones could still be an invaluable asset to track.

``Athletes from every level look up to her,' Riddick said. ``She's articulate. She's bright. Why try to push her out the door. I can't speak for her but I think she's a great person. I think she's so important to the sport.''