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Track Star Jones Pleads Guilty to Steroids Use

October 5, 2007 at 6:25 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: She was one of the world’s most accomplished athletes. With a big smile and huge talent, Marion Jones was the star of the Sydney 2000 Olympics, the first woman to win five medals at a single Olympic Games, three of them gold.

But she was soon dogged by reports and rumors that she used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Jones was formally linked to steroids during a federal probe that began in 2003 into a company called BALCO, the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative. BALCO’s owner and several others pleaded guilty to supplying athletes with a steroid, THG, sometimes called “the clear,” which was touted as being undetectable.

During the investigation, founder Victor Conte said he saw Jones using steroids.

VICTOR CONTE, President, BALCO: The purpose of telling the truth was not just simply to harm these athletes. The purpose was to bring focus and attention on the Olympic governing body officials, the owners of the professional sports teams, the players union executives, who have harbored, promoted and enabled this culture for decades.

JEFFREY BROWN: For years, Jones vehemently denied the charge.

MARION JONES, Athlete: I know that I’m an athlete that has always been drug-free. And I am right now, and I will always be.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today she had a different story, acknowledging in a New York federal court that she had lied to federal agents about using performance-enhancing drugs. Jones spoke outside the courthouse this afternoon.

MARION JONES: It is with a great amount of shame that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust. Making these false statements to federal agents was an incredibly stupid thing for me to do, and I am responsible fully for my actions.

Jones' long-awaited confession

JEFFREY BROWN: Jones could face up to six months in prison and could be stripped of her Olympic medals.

Dick Patrick has been covering the story for USA Today and joins us now.

Well, Dick Patrick, is it known why, after denying this for so long, Marion Jones finally admitted it today?

DICK PATRICK, USA Today: She hasn't said why, but the speculation is that maybe she was going to be charged by federal authorities and it behooved her to accept a plea bargain arrangement.

JEFFREY BROWN: The drug that she admits to using, THG, what does it actually do? What kind of competitive advantage would she have been seeking?

DICK PATRICK: Well, it would have made her stronger. It would have helped her recover more quickly from workouts and races. And the importance of that drug is that it was a designer steroid. They stuck a little chemical in there that made it undetectable to drug testers, until the U.S. anti-doping agency was given a vial of this, and they were able to establish a test for it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, she said today that she had been told by her coach originally that she was being given flaxseed oil. But at a certain point, she realized what was happening.

DICK PATRICK: Yes, that was the cover story. Barry Bonds said the same thing. And, you know, Victor Conte told the athletes to say, if you were ever caught, that you were just taking flaxseed oil.

JEFFREY BROWN: And why?

DICK PATRICK: Well, I don't think -- he wanted to give his athletes a plausible cover story if they were ever caught with a substance. And, you know, they faced penalties, at least the athletes in track and field, maybe not Bonds before baseball finally instituted drug penalties, but they needed a cover story if they were ever exposed.

JEFFREY BROWN: I gather we still don't know from today if there were any other drugs involved that she was using?

DICK PATRICK: Right. She said nothing about the extent of her drug use today. The Washington Post and the San Diego Union-Tribune alluded to a letter that she sent to family and friends. And in that letter, she confined her admission of drug use very narrowly, saying it consisted of using THG, which she was told was flaxseed oil, from '99 into '01.

Other steroid controversies

JEFFREY BROWN: You mention Barry Bonds, and we've mentioned the BALCO investigation. That's where this is all coming from, right?

DICK PATRICK: Right. We're entering the last phase of the BALCO case. The only people left unaccounted for right now are Trevor Graham, Marion's coach, who is due to stand trial in November, and then Bonds is the big fish.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bonds has always been talked, but nothing resolved over him?

DICK PATRICK: No, but in leaked grand jury transcripts, it appears that he acknowledged use of steroids, but without knowing them, again, this sort of same approach as Marion, saying, "I thought I was taking flaxseed oil."

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Marion Jones, the person, the athlete, I understand now that you've watched her since she was in high school. You were in Sydney. I mean, I remember those Olympics. She was on every magazine cover, the aura that she had. Tell us about her in her prime.

DICK PATRICK: Well, I mean, her prime lasted a long time. In 1991, she had just finished her sophomore year of high school. She was 15 years old, and she finished fourth in the United States championships in the 200 meters.

JEFFREY BROWN: As a 15-year-old.

DICK PATRICK: As a 15-year-old. She did the same thing in 16, finished fourth in the 200, could have gone to the Olympic Games in Barcelona that year as a relay alternate but decided against it. I mean, she was a prodigious sprint talent who, as a teenager, could run with the best athletes in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in 2000, that performance?

DICK PATRICK: Well, that was otherworldly. I think her winning margin there in Sydney was the greatest in the history of the race. And if you look at a photo finish of it, I mean, there's just a huge gap between Marion and everyone else. But, you know, now we know that she was on some rocket fuel in that race. But as others have pointed out, possibly others in that race, some of the also-rans, were using performance-enhancing drugs, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, she also had that personality.

DICK PATRICK: We got a glimpse of it today. Even at probably her low public moment, she is a charismatic and compelling person. She connects with the audience. She did everything right today. She was contrite; she was humble; she was sincere. You could feel her pain.

But I don't know that she was entirely truthful. She didn't tell us exactly what she had done. She admitted to making mistakes. And her pain is obvious. And people who know that she's a mother of a 4-year-old son can sympathize with what she must be going through now facing possible time in prison.

Losing Olympic medals

JEFFREY BROWN: She announced her retirement. Now, as we said, she faces the loss of those medals. Who makes that decision?

DICK PATRICK: Well, that will be a decision taken by the International Olympic Committee and the International Track Federation. The IOC, for two or three years now, has formed a committee to investigate the allegations against Jones, but that committee has done very little. Their work is actually being done by the federal authorities now that Marion has pleaded guilty.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, I think now, of course, everybody is looking at the next Olympics this summer.

DICK PATRICK: It will be in Beijing. And, you know, obviously, Marion won't be a part of that. There's a crop of great young sprinters who are, I think, setting a great tone with their ability. And they, I think, also recognize their responsibility to the sport and take seriously trying to be clean because they know another high-profile positive could really spell doom for the future of the sport.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Dick Patrick of USA Today, thanks very much.