Jones runs diplomatic course Fastest female ambassador reassesses performance-enhancing stance

By Tom Weir

World's Fastest Woman isn't the only title Marion Jones will carry as she begins her first track campaign since winning five Olympic medals in Australia. In recognition of the attention she brought to Belize, the Central American nation officially has proclaimed her Ambassador Jones. Her mother was born there, and a global audience saw Jones celebrate her heritage by waving the flags of Belize and the USA during victory laps at the Sydney Olympics.

For those who might think her appointment as ambassador of sport is merely a for-show honor, Jones has a diplomatic passport to prove otherwise. Ambassador Jones also has assigned herself the international mission of raising more than $2 million through her foundation to improve sports facilities in Belize, particularly the national stadium christened the Marion Jones Sports Complex, which may become her winter training haven.

And as she resumes her track career with a 300-meter race at this weekend's Mount SAC Relays at Walnut, Calif., Jones also may begin to emerge as an envoy bent on bridging the communications gap in the chaotic world of Olympic drug testing. This is the unwanted role that was thrust on Jones at the Sydney Olympics, when her five-event quest was disrupted by revelations that her husband, former world champion shot putter C.J. Hunter, had tested positive for a banned substance. ''I think perhaps if you would have asked me (about drugs) months ago, my whole take would have been that if athletes get caught they have to be dealt with,'' Jones says. ''With all the things that have happened, it's opened my eyes.''

Now Jones says that she would be much more inclined to extend the benefit of the doubt if one of her racing rivals tested positive for an illegal, performance-enhancing drug. ''I wouldn't turn my back on the fact this person had tested positive, but I would take another look and do some research,'' Jones says. In Sydney, Hunter's explanation was that he had unwittingly taken nutritional supplements tainted with the anabolic steroid nandrolone. Some Olympic officials branded that response as preposterous, but in the weeks after the Games it gained credence. Drug testing a sham?

Supplements aren't held to high labeling standards, and subsequent studies by the International Olympic Committee found many often contain traces of substances on the banned list. Still there are critics who say Olympic drug testing has become a sham. In a recent report by CBS News for 60 Minutes II, the former head of the U.S. Olympic Committee's doping control, Wade Exum, said American athletes who tested positive for illegal drugs often received reprimands instead of suspensions. Exum cited nandrolone as one of the most common violations. ''C.J.'s admitted that he took these supplements and he wasn't aware they were tainted,'' Jones says. ''That's the word we're trying to get out there, that there are things that aren't on the label. . . . There needs to be a lot more research, especially with nandrolone.'' Hunter already had announced his retirement from track, citing a knee injury, when he was suspended for 2 years for nandrolone violations.

Jones' track career is very much alive, though she sometimes runs into people who think otherwise. ''When I travel, I find myself getting asked the same question all of the time,'' Jones says. ''They say, 'So what are you doing now?' When I tell them I'm training, they say, 'Training for what?' '' That typifies one of track's biggest problems -- its inevitable fade in the year after each Summer Olympics, even though there is still a track season.

As goodwill ambassadors go, Jones may be one of the few track personalities who can attract interest in the sport during the Olympic lull. She was on the cover of Time and Newsweek leading up to Sydney, then posed for a striking Vogue cover and fashion spread after the Olympic flame was extinguished. ''I love to run; I love to compete,'' Jones says. ''If that means I'm in the limelight, so be it. If I'm not in the limelight, so be it.''

In Sydney, that limelight became daunting after news broke about Hunter. But at her next day of competition, Jones dutifully ran a gantlet of one-on-one interviews with about 25 television crews from around the world before leaving the stadium floor. ''I've seen how athletes react when it's a bad game or day,'' Jones says. ''They don't want to talk, and I've never understood that. Even if something is going on that I don't want to talk about, I have a responsibility to talk.''

But in looking back, Jones realizes she might have talked a little too soon about her all-or-nothing goal of winning five Olympic gold medals. She finished with three -- in the 100 and 200 meters and the 4x400 relay -- but had to settle for bronze in the long jump and 4x100 relay. ''This was the first time this kind of media exposure was put on me and my coach,'' Jones says. ''I've learned some things from it. I think from now on we'll wait a bit.''

The five medals at a single Olympics were unprecedented for a female track athlete. But the big expectations left some people, including herself, with the impression she had come up short. ''I was the first one to say after the Games that I was a bit disappointed,'' says Jones, who missed victory in the long jump by a mere 3 inches and whose 4x100 relay team was hit by injuries to key members Inger Miller and Gail Devers. ''It was right there,'' Jones says. ''A little more on the (long jump) board and without some unfortunate things in the relay . . . '' Jones is content to keep her Olympic medals stored in a safe-deposit box. ''I bring them out occasionally,'' she says. ''The medals are great, but I really just wanted the Olympic experience. It's about the moments.''

One of the better moments came on the first day of competition, before the news about Hunter broke. She was getting ready to run the first round in the 100 and didn't expect much of a crowd. ''From outside I could see the top rows of the stadium, and it was packed by 10 a.m.,'' Jones says. ''I said 'OK, Marion, you're at the Olympic Games now.' ''

WNBA career on hold

While Jones figures to remain the biggest name in track through the 2004 Athens Olympics, she has no immediate plans to extend that celebrity to women's basketball. But after being a point guard on North Carolina's NCAA championship team of 1994, she's keeping the option of a WNBA career open. ''I still have enormous passion for the game,'' Jones says. ''I think that's still perhaps in the future when I'm done with my track career, and I don't know how long that will be.''

At 25, Jones isn't sure how long she can remain a viable WNBA player. ''That I don't know, but obviously I'll be in shape,'' Jones says. She and Hunter coach a Raleigh (N.C.)-area team of 11- and 12-year-olds, which gives her a chance to monitor her basketball skills. ''I shoot around all the time,'' Jones says. ''I make sure the shot is still there.'' But for now Jones' primary basketball goal is to become a TV commentator for NCAA women's tournaments. A journalism major at North Carolina, she says, ''Every time I step on the track a camera is in my face, so I think I have enough experience.''

This week the Mount SAC Relays at Mount San Antonio College will take her back to her Southern California roots. She will use the opportunity to hold a track clinic for children. Jones says, ''I'm really good, I think, at getting across that I'm very similar to them, that I like doing this and this, and I train hard, I work out 5 hours a day and I'm an Olympic champion now.'' But rather than hold the clinic at one of the two Southern California high schools she attended -- Rio Mesa or Thousand Oaks -- Jones will have it at a neutral site in between at Camarillo High. ''I'm going to go to one right smack in the middle,'' Jones says.

Spoken like a true diplomat.