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Steroid stain wedded to Jones, clean or no


SYDNEY, Australia - It hardly reflects well on Marion Jones, the American track star trying to win five gold medals at the 2000 Summer Olympics, that her husband has tested positive for steroids, as a Sydney tabloid newspaper first reported today and the International Amateur Athletic Federation later confirmed.

No, it doesn't mean Jones also has used performance-enhancing drugs. That's not a fair leap to make, even if many are bound to make it in the wake of a Sydney Daily Telegraph report that her husband, world champion shot-putter C. J. Hunter, had tested positive at a meet in Europe last summer.

"I heard nothing to suggest that Marion Jones is in any way involved," International Olympic Committee vice president Richard Pound told The Sun's Bill Glauber.

Jones has never flunked a test, and she underwent one after winning the gold medal in the women's 100 meters Saturday night.

"If she doesn't test positive, we shouldn't confer [blame] from one individual to another," IOC general director Francois Carrard said.

But since this is track, a sport already operating under a dark cloud of drug-related suspicions, there is no way for Jones to avoid being tainted. Fairly or not, there are going to be questions now. Questions and doubts.

Did she know what her husband was doing, or did Hunter shield his steroid use from her? How much does she know about the sports netherworld of performance-enhancing drugs?

And, of course, the big question no one wants to ask out loud is this: With some drug tests being dismissed as inadequate to handle the sophisticated masking agents on the market now, is there any way Jones also is guilty even though she has never tested positive?

That's a devastating question for track, the Olympic movement, NBC and anyone invested in seeing the Games come off as cleanly and positively as possible.

Just the fact that people are going to ask it now, even if Jones is innocent, damages the credibility of Jones, the Games and all involved.

Is that fair? Maybe, maybe not. Is it a shame? No question. It's a terrible shame. Instead of being an American Olympic story without reservations, now there's a nagging question: Just how naive should we be?

The hope, of course, is that she's clean. Having never flunked a test, she certainly warrants the presumption of innocence.

But remember, track has all but disappeared from the sporting radar in America because of fans' suspicions that they couldn't trust what they were seeing. With Hunter and many other athletes from all over the world getting caught in the web of drug use, it's hard not to believe that everything you see is an illusion.

Certainly, the news that a shot-putter had tested positive for steroids was about as surprising as the news that the sun came up again today in Australia. The event has been dogged for years by high-profile bans and suspensions, results overturned, medals given back - the whole, sad litany of cheating.

That Hunter, in particular, was involved didn't exactly come out of the blue, either. Amid rumors that the drug testing in Sydney would be far more stringent than at any prior Olympics, the track world was immediately suspicious of any athlete who pulled out shortly before the Games began, as Hunter did after finishing first at the U.S. Olympic Trials in July.

Everyone's eyebrows went up when China pulled 27 athletes in all sports out of the Games just before they began, and although the U.S. "pull-outs" had excuses, their timing, in the end, was just as suspicious.

Hunter had a seemingly valid excuse - his injured knee was in such bad shape that he underwent surgery earlier this month.

That's really going to an extreme to avoid having to take a drug test.

IOC officials blistered the U.S. athletic world in the wake of the revelations about Hunter, inferring that the drug problem in American track is far worse than people imagine.

"What's happening today doesn't surprise me," IOC medical commission chairman Prince Alexandre de Merode said. "It's not the first time a problem arises."

De Merode went on to accuse U.S. track officials of executing a drug cover-up before the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea, allowing five athletes who had flunked their tests to participate in the Games.

But in the end, the IOC, with enough problems of its own, really wanted no part of the Hunter debacle.

"It is not a matter of concern to the Olympic Games," Carrard said. "The testing was done elsewhere. [Hunter] is not competing here. In that sense, it's not a matter on our agenda."

Fine. Whatever. But anyone who thinks the cloud from this story won't cast a shadow over the Olympics is naive.

NBC's ratings are already coming in under what was expected. The network's arrogant decision to show everything from Sydney on tape is coming back to hurt it.

Hey, you might have to wait 24 hours to hear NBC "announce" the news about Hunter. It's certainly not a development that is going to increase interest.

All it increases are the doubts about drug use that can't seem to stay out of the headlines.

Marion Jones is a wonderful athlete and maybe the biggest star of the Games, her "Drive for Five" of worldwide interest. But now there are questions. What, if anything, did she know? And what, if anything, has she done?

We don't know the answers. But track's dirty fingers are trying to reach out and stain her, and the timing couldn't be worse.

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