In 1981, when Marion Jones was 5 years old, she watched with a child's wonderment and curiosity as Diana married Prince Charles on TV. She asked her mother why there was a red carpet. Her mom said they always roll out a red carpet for very important people.
"Well, why don't they roll it out for me?" Marion asked.
Today, and for the next nine days, the sports world will roll out a figurative red carpet for Jones on the floor of the Olympic Stadium. It will be unfurled at the starting line of the women's 100-meter dash, as Jones runs the opening heat and begins her unprecedented quest to win five track and field gold medals in a single Games.
In addition to the 100 meters, Jones will try to win the 200-meter dash and the long jump, along with 4x100- and 4x400-meter relays. It is a daunting proposition. No woman has ever attempted to win five track-and-field events in an Olympics. No woman has even won four since Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands did it in 1948.
There is a reason for this, of course. It is a physically and mentally exhausting task to compete in two or three events, never mind five. When you figure in qualifying heats, Jones will have to run at least 10 races to reach her goal. She might have to long jump nine times next Wednesday and Friday to capture that gold.
Here's a quick synopsis of what lies ahead of Jones as track and field takes center stage in the second week of the Sydney Games:
After the 100-meter heat this afternoon, she runs the second round tonight. On Saturday, she runs the 100 semifinal at 6:30 and the final at 8:05. After a three-day respite, she'll have the first two rounds of the 200 meters and the long jump qualifying on Wednesday. Thursday evening, it's the 200 semi and final.
Friday, the first round of the 4x100 relay will go off at 10:45 a.m. The 4x400 first round is at 6:40 p.m. The long jump final is at 7:20 p.m. and the 4x100 semifinal is at 8:20. All that she'll have to do on Saturday, if she's still standing, is run both relay finals, two hours apart, that night.
One's calves and hamstrings begin to tighten just thinking about such an extraordinary athletic undertaking. But Jones is no ordinary athlete. She is one of the most gifted athletes of her time -- even though she has never competed in an Olympics.
By the time she was 15, Jones already owned the California high school record in the 200 meters. She still owns it. A year later, she was offered a spot on the '92 Olympic team as an alternate in the 4x100 relay, but she declined, saying she didn't want to be a backup.
A year later, she went to North Carolina on a basketball scholarship. As a freshman, she led the Tar Heel women to the 1994 NCAA title. Three years later, she returned to national track and field competition. Less than three months after playing her final hoop game, shechampion C.J. Hunter (who is hurt and unable to compete here), says people don't realize how competitive his wife is, or how diligently she trains. That's why she's so confident about her chances to win the five gold medals, even though she's never competed in all five (or even four) at a single meet.
"She ought to be confident," Hunter said.
"I hate not winning, and I'm a sore loser," Jones said. "When it's time to perform I have to get that certain mental attitude, or the result might be something that I have found in the past that I really can't deal with."
Jamaica's Merlene Ottey will challenge her in the 100, where Jones has a tendency to get out of the blocks slowly. In the 200, she is close to a lock. In the relays, she has to rely on three other runners to help her win gold. In the 4x100 relay, the U.S. women will find formidable opposition in the world championship quartet from the Bahamas.
Jones appears most vulnerable in the long jump. She has been inconsistent in the event, and her technique has been described as "artless." There will be a strong field of full-time jumpers, including Italy's Fiona May and Russia's Tatyana Kotova, both of whom have jumped farther this year.
Some people wonder why she bothers with the long jump. Why not concentrate on the other four events? No woman has even won three since Florence Griffith Joyner did it in 1988.
"I feel in my heart that I can do something great in that event," she said. "I'm not going to be 60 years old and tell my grandchildren that I could have been one of the best long jumpers in the world, but didn't try it. I couldn't live with myself if I did that."
She'll be one of the biggest Olympic heroes of all time if she wins five. Jones is already a media darling. She has appeared on the covers of countless magazines leading up to the Games. She has been featured in numerous TV ads, including one where she complains about the lack of equal pay for female athletes.
Craig Masback, the head of USA Track and Field, said Jones "will be the first female international athlete to transcend sports the way Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali and Pele did" if she wins five gold medals. But a lot can go wrong over the next nine days.
"I've never said this was going to be easy," Jones said. "I think that's what drives me, the fact that it's going to be a challenge."