The Olympic year will accelerate with the 97th installment of the Millrose Games tonight.
The indoor track and field meet at New York's Madison Square Garden will be graced for the first time by Marion Jones, as the world's top female sprinter will try to elevate an enterprise that has come to resemble the Jerry Springer Show instead of a sport.
Doping issues hover over American track and field. Accusations of drug use have led to defiant denials and an act of contrition.
Earlier this week, USA Track and Field apologized to the U.S. Olympic Committee for its perceived cover-up in the case of Jerome Young, the 400-meter runner who was allowed on the gold-medal-winning, 1,600-relay team at the 2000 Olympics despite testing positive for banned substances the year before.
Kelli White won the women's 100 and 200 at last year's world championships, then tested positive for a stimulant. It will be months before her explanations and appeals will be weighed.
Four years ago in Sydney, Australia, those two sprints were owned by Jones, whose "Drive for Five" - an attempt to become the first track and field athlete to win five gold medals in a single Olympics - was a main story line at the 2000 games.
White stepped into the void created by the absence of Jones, who took 2003 off to have a baby, and, yes, Tim Montgomery Jr. is the son of the world-record holder in the men's 100. Jones' return to competition isn't all soft and cuddly, however. She has experienced guilt by association on the doping front.
Her 2000 Olympic quest was dragged down by her then-husband, shot-putter C.J. Hunter, who had to explain several positive tests that came to light in Sydney. His teary-eyed explanation came at a news conference that included a brief appearance by Jones and a longer one by Victor Conte, the owner of a California lab at the center of the designer steroid scandal that has extended to more marquee sports.
Last year, Jones' circle of advisers included Charlie Francis, the coach who worked with Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who was stripped of his 1988 Olympic gold medal in the men's 100 for steroid use.
"I'm for a drug-free sport," Jones said Wednesday during a news conference in New York. "I always have been and I always will be. I've never taken performance-enhancing drugs, and I never will."
Jones was immune to whispers about her own accomplishments as she grew from an age-group prodigy to a star on an NCAA-championship basketball team at North Carolina to the second-fastest woman ever.
The repertoire of Jones, 28, hasn't extended to indoor track and field. She hasn't raced indoors since a 1998 meet in Japan, when she tied an American record, but she is eager to get 2004 going and end a 17-month layoff from competition. She headlines a 60-meter dash field that includes Torri Edwards and Allyson Felix, who broke Jones' national high school 200 record.
"I'm definitely out of my element," said Jones, who, at 5 feet 11, is more suited to the 400 than a short dash. "I've got a new coach, new baby, so there are a lot of things going on in my life right now. I want the feeling of lining up behind the blocks with seven or eight of the other best athletes in the world. Although I've been training for seven or eight months, you can't get that feeling in practice."
Jones had mulled a low-key return.
"Then I decided," Jones said, "anywhere I go in the world, even if it's a dual meet, everybody will be talking about it, so why not go to one of the most prestigious indoor meets in the world?"
Another athlete on the rebound, James Carter, is in the four-man field in the 600-yard dash. Carter went from Baltimore's Mervo High to a fourth-place finish in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2000 games. After going to the world championships in 2001 and earning his first U.S. title in 2002, Carter was slowed by a knee injury last season.