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Making a Tiger-like charge


SYDNEY, Australia - Track and field nuts refer to Holland's Fanny Blankers-Koen, who in 1948 became the only woman to win four Olympic gold medals in the ancient sport. They also invoke the name of Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn who won five golds in the 1924 Games, a feat that has never been equaled in Olympic track.


Don't be so retro.

If any comparisons are made regarding Marion Jones, the most compelling athlete at these Games, they should be to another contemporary.

Marion Jones is Tiger Woods.

Just as Woods has rewritten golf's record book, opened a sport to minorities and become a marketing force, Jones can break new ground in track and field, give that beleaguered sport a fresh role model and become a Madison Avenue star in her own right.

The parallels between the two are eerie.

In late 1975, Jones and Woods were born 2 1/2 months apart in Southern California. Both were child prodigies. Tiger made a shrine to Jack Nicklaus' records. Marion watched the 1984 Games in Los Angeles play out in her back yard, and a year later wrote an essay about how she wanted to become an Olympian.

Tiger won the Masters in 1997, then rebuilt his game. Marion went to North Carolina on a basketball scholarship, moved from forward to point guard and as a freshman steered that program to an NCAA title. Four months after returning to track in 1997, she won a world championship in the 100-meter dash.

When they are on their "A" game, both Marion and Tiger are unbeatable, and there's the rub.

Jones is capable of being the first woman to stretch 25 feet in the long jump, and just as vulnerable to a 22-foot outing. That would doom the "Drive for Five," her quest to become the first woman to win five gold medals in track and field at an Olympics.

She expects to win the 100 and 200, sprints in which only the late Florence Griffith Joyner has ever run faster. Jones will anchor the favored U.S. 400 relay Sept. 30. Later that day she will handle one of the legs in the 1,600 relay, and don't get the idea that anyone is doing her a favor. In April, Jones became the fourth-fastest American ever in the 400.

That final relay will provide either the climax to a historic first or a close brush with immortality.

Hump day for Jones comes Sept. 29, when the long jump final will be contested. Jones' speed on the runway is unparalleled, her foibles with form and the takeoff board notorious. She nearly fouled her way off the U.S. team in July but recovered and won the trials with a leap of 23 feet, 1/2 inch. Only two women in the world have gone farther this year.

The long jump will provide the major drama in a story that began to take shape late last year, when Jones announced that she intended to compete in five events at the Olympics, and of course, win them all.

In rapid order, Jones became the world's most hyped Olympic athlete. She will provide the major story line for NBC's second week of Olympic programming. She has made as many magazine covers as Madonna and hawked more wares than Regis Philbin.

Jones insists that she doesn't know what to make of the publicity and the accompanying scrutiny, but this was Muhammad Ali forecasting the round a chump would fall, Joe Namath predicting that the Colts were going down. How did she expect her audacity to be taken?

"I don't wish I wouldn't have said it," Jones replied. "Looking back now, perhaps I wish I wouldn't have said it so early. Maybe I should have kept the suspense a little longer.

"You have to understand, I don't see it on the magnitude of all of you [the media]. You guys see it as something that's never been done before. I just see it as going out there and doing another day's work. When I said it, I wasn't thinking in terms of historical implications. When I said it, I had no idea that it had never been done before."

Winning is just about the only thing Jones has ever known in athletics. Raised by a single mother, she followed older brother Albert through a tomboy phase that found her gifted and strong enough to hold her own with boys 5 years older.

By 1991, Jones was a veteran of overseas basketball junkets, but followers of California's competitive prep track and field circuit were possessive of her unique talents. She passed on a trip to the 1992 Olympics as an alternate on the 400 relay. Her mother said it was to keep her in line. Marion said that if she were going to be awarded a gold medal, it would be for her work in the final, not an earlier round.

When Jones headed to North Carolina in 1993, coach Sylvia Hatchell gave her the keys to a veteran Tar Heels group. Marion drove them to the only NCAA women's title ever won by an Atlantic Coast Conference team.

"I only got to see Marion a couple of times a season," Maryland coach Chris Weller said. "That was enough. If you let her get ahead of the pack with the ball, no one was going to catch her. Her speed opened a lot of things for that team."

If Jones had stuck with basketball, would she be playing in the WNBA?

"Her skills were raw," Weller said. "She wasn't advanced shooting the ball. But if she stayed with it, she at least would have held her own professionally. As obvious as her speed was, you also had to notice that she had the fierce competitive nature that makes a star. She was one of those people who measure themselves against something internal."

Jones found a kindred spirit in C. J. Hunter, who resigned his job as an assistant track coach at North Carolina when their relationship went beyond being just friends. They were married in 1998, and her outlook will suffer if a knee injury keeps him out of the shot put in Sydney.

"What C. J. brings to me and the relationship is a relaxed setting, a calm setting," Jones said. "He makes me laugh, he makes me forget about all this. He keeps me sane, keeps me grounded."

After she took the 100 and Hunter the shot at last year's world championships, Jones found herself grounded in Seville, Spain. She was forced out of the 200 semifinals with back spasms, which might have been exacerbated by a shaky experience in the long jump. Foul problems hindered Jones during a third-place finish, which led to pleas for her to locate a new coach.

Just last week, a Russian coach said that Jones' technique "is at kindergarten level."

Jones has remained loyal to Trevor Graham, a former Jamaican sprinter who developed a number of U.S. Olympians. Graham has little experience in the jumps, but he did help Jones reach 23-11 1/4 in 1998. Since 1994, no woman has jumped farther.

Jones gets uncharacteristically testy when defending Graham. Though Hunter can be cantankerous with strangers, his wife's charisma is being banked on. Four months ago, the two could eat dinner unnoticed at a food court at George Bush International Airport in Houston. That was before she began to pop up in a series of ad spots. Several are for Nike, which has plans to make Jones the central figure in its new women's unit.

Who else has Nike swooshed in that fashion? Michael Jordan and that Tiger kid.

Jones' 'Drive for Five'

Marion Jones' expected schedule, though she might not be used in the first two rounds of the 400 relay Sept. 29:

Date ......................Events

Sept. 22 ..............100, first, second rounds

Sept. 23 ..............100, semifinals and final

Sept. 27 ..............200, first and second rounds; long jump qualifying

Sept. 28 ..............200, semifinals and final

Sept. 29 ..............400 relay, first round and semifinals; long jump final

Sept. 30 ..............400 relay, final; 1,600 relay, final

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