Starr: Keep Marion Jones in Prison

In August of 1999, I was at the world track and field championships in Seville, Spain to begin my coverage—"gathering string" is what we call it in the business—of Marion Jones, who would be NEWSWEEK's cover gal for the Sydney Olympics a year later.

But in a 200 meters semifinal—she had already won gold in the 100 and a bronze in the long jump—Jones pulled up in the stretch and, in visible pain, grabbed her back before sinking to the track. She would be wheeled off on a stretcher and, though the injury was later deemed minor, her championship meet was over.

I stayed in Seville another day, waiting to see if Jones would recover to run on the U.S. relay team. Once she was ruled out, I scrambled my travel plans and got out of town a day early, planning to surprise my wife by arriving home on our anniversary. When I boarded the plane for the flight to Madrid, I was surprised to find myself sitting opposite Jones on the aisle. I leaned over and told her that I was sorry about her injury and wished her a speedy recovery.

In my many years of covering athletes, Jones was one of the rare ones who evinced some interest in other people, even the reporter sitting across from her. Instead of a perfunctory "thank you," she asked my impressions of the championship and then why I wasn't staying for the final weekend. When I explained about my anniversary, she flashed her winning smile and said, "I'm glad something good could come out of all this."

I genuinely liked this lady, and a year later I would write a glowing story—she showed that now-familiar smile on the NEWSWEEK cover—with the headline: MARION JONES: SUPERWOMAN. Other Olympic stories were listed on that cover, including THE DRUG GAME. But neither my piece—"the total package" was one of my descriptives—nor the drug story contained any suggestion that Jones and drugs belonged in the same sentence. And I never could have imagined any other kind of "sentence" in conjunction with Queen Marion.

The fall from grace of Marion Jones is one of the saddest and most stunning in sports history. Last fall, she admitted to an extensive use of performance-enhancing drugs; in federal court she confessed to lying to investigators in both the BALCO drug-scandal case and a check-fraud case involving her former boyfriend, another defrocked sprinter, Tim Montgomery. Outside the courthouse, she said, "It is with a great amount of shame that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust … I have let my country down and I have let myself down.

The price she has paid for that betrayal is indeed steep. She was sentenced to six months in federal prison and later stripped of the five medals—three golds and two bronzes—that she won at the 2000 Olympics. After being in the limelight at the last two Summer Games, Jones will spend this Olympic August in Ft. Worth, Texas, where she has been incarcerated since March. That is unless President Bush grants Jones's formal application for commutation of her sentence.

I can go an awfully long time writing sports columns without even mentioning the president. But last week I defended his decision to go Beijing for the opening ceremonies. And this week I am offering him some more Olympic counsel: Please, do not grant Jones early release. I expect some readers will find my motives suspect. They might conclude that I want a bit back at her, that, after being played I am a wee bit vindictive. But I am hardly a singular case. Everyone whose life was touched by Jones—as she herself made clear—was, in the end, betrayed by her. And really, I am not that petty.

What I am is one of those reporters who feel that drugs have been a scourge on sports and all the putative values they hold and which first attracted me to them. And after all the drug scandals (and sadly, as the Tour de France has revealed, we are not yet "after" anything) that have tarnished our games and sent a cynical, and destructive message to our youth, there is no more powerful symbol than Marion Jones sitting out Beijing '08 in federal prison. It is not just a message about cheating, but also one that insists to our greatest athletes that they are not above or outside our legal system. They may be coddled and have special privileges bestowed upon them throughout their lives, but they are still accountable under the law.

It is hard to imagine the president doesn't share that sentiment. This week at White House send-off ceremonies for our Olympians, President Bush reminded them that they were "ambassadors of liberty" and that they "will convey our nation's most cherished values." One of those cherished values must certainly be "equal under the law." So while the president goes to Beijing and honors and cheers on our Olympians, he should honor those values and let Jones sit in prison, a chilling reminder that there can be a terrible price for dishonor.

Starr: Keep Marion Jones in Prison | Culture