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FRANCE'S PEREC LEAVES AUSTRALIA

Marie-Jose Perec, the enigmatic Frenchwoman who was expected to provide Australia's Cathy Freeman with her most serious challenge in the 400 meters, left the country, and apparently the Summer Olympics, under a cloud of mystery.

Confirming that Perec, the 1996 gold medalist in the 200 and 400, had boarded a flight bound for London via Melbourne and Singapore, a spokesperson for her athletic shoe and apparel supplier said the sudden departure Wednesday night was instigated by an attack on Perec in her Darling Harbor apartment.

Patricia Menant of Reebok France said a man knocked on Perec's door Wednesday afternoon, claiming he had a package to deliver, and when she opened the door, he forced his way into the room, "pushed her, insulted her and threatened her."

"He said something to the effect that if she stayed in the country or came back, he would get her," Menant said, describing the man as an English speaker with an Australian accent.

The general manager of the Grand Mercure apartments, where Perec was staying, said he had received no report of the incident. Neither was a report filed with New South Wales police.

French track and field officials said today they had learned that Perec had not yet left Singapore and they were hopeful that she would return in time for Friday's first round of the 400.

Except for Australian Olympic heroes such as Ian Thorpe, Susie O'Neill and Freeman, Perec has received more media attention than any athlete here, primarily because of the great lengths she has gone to avoid attention.

The Australian media have portrayed her as Garboesque, an image she contributed to by refusing to associate with French teammates or officials, renting her own private training site and failing to attend a scheduled news conference Tuesday.

On her Web site last week, she said that some Australian media were harassing her in a conspiracy among themselves to enhance Freeman's gold-medal chances.

"I have the impression everything is being fabricated to destabilize me," she said. "I have never seen anything like this. It is not right. It has affected me."

Perec suffers from Epstein Barr syndrome, a rare virus that causes chronic fatigue. She has dropped out of three races this summer in Europe that would have pitted her against Freeman.

The withdrawal overshadows what should be the biggest and busiest day of the Games. Friday is the start of two-a-day track-and-field sessions at the 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium. Those fans will combine with others heading to swimming, where 17,500 will continue to pack the Aquatics Center through Saturday, basketball, volleyball, baseball, boxing, gymnastics, tennis and several other sports.

SOGOC officials anticipate 170,000 for the morning sessions, 230,000 at night. The close of the day and the hours when those exiting and arriving converge -- between 2 and 6 p.m. -- figure to be chaotic.

Marion Jones will launch a quest Friday so bold that it has been labeled foolish, even greedy.

She's aiming for five golds -- a feat accomplished in Olympic track and field only once, by Finland's Paavo Nurmi 76 years ago. Jones, in her first Olympics, will compete in the 100, 200 and long jump, as well as the 400- and 1,600-meter relays.

"I am running fast and confident," Jones said. "I am at the Olympic Games. I am 24 years old. It doesn't get much better than that."

Jones and America's other two mighty M's -- Maurice Greene and Michael Johnson -- will make appearances Friday as eight days of triumphs, tragedies, upsets and upheaval get off to a flying start.

Jones and Greene will run in the 100-meter preliminaries, Johnson in the opening round of the 400.

Inger Miller, Jones' biggest challenger in the sprints and a key member of the 400-relay team, pulled out of the 100 with a hamstring strain and is questionable for the other two events.

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