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HUNTER'S POSITIVE TEST TARNISHES JONES' DRIVE FOR FIVE

Everything changes now, of course. Never again can Marion Jones be the bright-eyed young innocent, the little 8-year-old girl writing her Olympic dreams on the blackboard at school.

Today, Jones is just another woman being made to suffer for the dubious judgment of a husband, just one more compromised Olympic athlete, reduced to performing her great athletic feats under a cloud of suspicion and doubt.

No one can say for certain what Jones knew or didn't know about the alleged use of steroids by her husband, C.J. Hunter. As the flaks from USA Track and Field made clear this afternoon, we cannot even be sure that Hunter used performance-enhancing drugs, as the IAAF contends, until the process is complete.

But when Jones returns to the Olympic Stadium track on Wednesday to resume her historic quest of five gold medals, it will not feel the same. How can we watch her run or jump and not wonder? How can even the mildest skeptic not ponder the obvious question: Could she have shared Hunter's home and bed and not known he was using drugs? And did she do drugs, too?

She's become the Michelle Smith of these Games. Smith was the Irish swimmer who came out of nowhere to win three gold medals in Atlanta. She never tested positive for drugs, but her achievements remain tainted, largely because she was married to a Dutch discus thrower who had been kicked out of his sport for using performance-enhancing drugs.

It's difficult to see her tarnished this way. Watching Jones run the 100-meter dash Saturday night, I found myself rooting for her. I wanted to believe she represented all that is still beautiful and pure about the Olympic movement, an athlete so gifted she didn't need to cheat, a role model for little girls.

She can still be all that, but can she ever rise above the skepticism created by Hunter's positive drug test? And why should she be any different? It has become commonplace at the Olympics for American coaches and athletes to question the virtue of their rivals, minus any proof.

Two Dutch swimmers, Inge de Bruijn and Pieter van der Hoogenband, were the surprise stars of the swimming competition. De Bruijn won gold in all three of her sprint events, breaking the world record in each. She has set 11 world records since breaking through as the world's premier female swimmer four months ago. Van der Hoogenband upset Aussie teen idol Ian Thorpe in the 200 meters and dethroned Russia's Alexander Popov in the 100.

Both of them had to defend themselves against drug accusations. Richard Quick, the U.S. women's swim coach, said he was convinced there were people on drugs at the Olympics. He said he wasn't pointing fingers at the Dutch, but what else were we to think? Surely he wasn't referring to the plodding sprinters from Equatorial Guinea.

On Wednesday night, in the press conference after the men's 100, a writer from the New York Times put it point-blank to van der Hoogenband: "Given the insufficiency of IOC drug-testing procedures, can you guarantee you're clean?"

The only evidence against the two Dutch swimmers was their speed. Meanwhile, the U.S. swimmers broke two world, eight U.S. and 11 Olympic records here. Are they above suspicion? One of Quick's chief proteges, Misty Hyman, knocked four seconds off her season's best time in winning a gold medal. She wasn't forced to defend herself in a packed press conference. Neither was Megan Quann or Lenny Krayzelburg.

So when the world's most famous female athlete has her hubby turn up positive for steroids in the middle of the Olympics, you'd have to think she's fair game. That muffled sound you hear is the swimmers and runners from other nations, laughing at the self-righteous Americans getting theirs.

The Main Press Center was buzzing with rumors this afternoon. Tempers were short among workers at the United States Olympic Committee. There were whispers that more bad news was coming. During a press conference at the MPC, ostensibly held to announce the makeup of the men's 4x100 relay, spokespersons for USA Track and Field mainly parried questions about Hunter and Jones.

Jill Geer, director of communications for USA Track and Field, handed out this press release to a packed conference room: "USA Track and Field confirms that the IAAF is referring to it an eligibility matter involving an American athlete. In accordance with our rules, we will make no further comment and will follow all standard procedures for adjudication."

In other words, they'll get back to us long after the Olympics are finished, when no one is paying attention anymore. Geer said the USA Track and Field drug testing program is the best in the world, but few of the seasoned observers seemed to believe her. Neither does the IAAF, the international anti-doping agency, which last week criticized the U.S. for not releasing results of drug tests in a swift enough manner.

Former marathon champion Frank Shorter, the chairman of the new, independent U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said before the Games that "right now every performance in an endurance event is suspect." Critics of IOC testing procedures said they had set the bar for catching cheaters extremely high, largely out of fear of litigation. News of Hunter's positive test is a reminder that cheaters are still out there.

At any rate, the Jones story will lose some of its glitter and charm after this. The pressure on her, enormous to begin with, will be even more intense. At every step of the way in her pursuit of five gold medals, she will be bombarded by questions about her husband, about drug use, about her personal life. I'm sure the Dutch press will have a field day with her.

A lot of the Americans here are experiencing feelings of outrage and betrayal. People want to read stories about pure competitors, about heroic triumph and the upholding the Olympic ideal. But more and more, an objective observer begins to feel like a fool for glorifying athletes, knowing it could all come crashing down with one failed drug test.

Every time you celebrate a great performance, you stop and ask if you're praising a cheat. After a while, you start to feel cheated yourself.

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