Right to the end, you figured she was going to pull it out. Marion Jones had us all believing, didn't she? She predicted two years ago that she was going to win five gold medals in the Olympics, and every time you saw her perform up close, you became more convinced it might actually happen.
She believed it herself. That's what made the whole outlandish run for five gold medals so plausible. And when Jones stood there at the end of the long jump runway here Friday night, needing to jump seven meters to win the gold medal and keep the dream alive, she really thought she was going to nail it.
"On the last jump, I was going to lay it all on the line," Jones said. "This is what every athlete dreams of, coming back on your last jump and jumping further than you ever have in your life. I was very aggressive on the runway -- very fast, very fast. I thought I took off well and I thought I was around the seven-meter mark.
"Then I looked around and saw the man with the red flag and I kind of realized my hopes were dashed."
She had fouled for the third time in a row. She fouled on four of her six allotted jumps and had to settle for bronze. Considering her general lack of form in the long jump discipline, that was simply too much margin of error. Heike Dreschler, the 35-year-old veteran from Germany, won the gold with a 6.99-meter leap.
Italy's Fiona May jumped 6.92 meters, the same as Jones, but was awarded the silver medal by virtue of fewer fouls. Silver or bronze, it didn't matter to the woman who was trying to become the first woman ever to win five track and field gold medals in an Olympics.
Jones didn't need the jump of her life to win. She jumped 7.31 meters (24 feet) in 1998, which is the eighth-longest women's jump in history. But she hasn't jumped nearly that well recently, and track afficionados shake their heads at her choppy, unpolished jumping style and her refusal to hire a long jumping coach to help her.
"Marion is a great fighter," said Dreschler, who said this was her final Olympics. "She has so much speed, and when she learns to handle the speed in the jump, we have no chance. She is the future, I'm sure."
The long jump was regarded all along as the biggest obstacle in the pursuit of five gold medals. Friday night, those fears came to pass, as Jones lacked the experience and precision to pull off a big jump when she needed it most.
"I felt great," Jones said, "surprisingly good after last night (when she won the 200 meters). A couple of the fouls I had weren't because my steps were off, but because I was trying to be aggressive on the runway and I was trying to go for it. Things like that happen, but once again I left it out there on the track. I can look in the mirror tonight and be pleased."
It's too bad it had to end. If she had won the long jump, there would have been some matchless drama on the track tonight. On Thursday night, after finishing second in the 200 meters, Pauline Davis-Thompson of the Bahamas had issued a personal challenge to Jones and the U.S. women in the 4x100 relay.
"Let's put it this way," Davis-Thompson said. "We were the 1996 Olympics silver medalists. We were the 1999 world champion, and we are still the underdog, and we love being in that spot. It's just going to make our win that much sweeter, Marion."
The relays will still be terrific tonight. The American women qualified easily in both the 4x100 and 4x400 relays, without Jones. Despite all the nagging doubts about the relays, they looked surprisingly capable. Jones would have had a real shot at winning her five gold medals. Now she'll have to go for four golds and a bronze instead.
Now really, is that so bad? Would four gold and a bronze be characterized as a FAILURE? Only one woman in history, Fanny Blankers-Koen, has ever won four track and field golds in an Olympics. So Jones could still leave Sydney as one of the most decorated Olympians of all time. And she's still only 24 years old.
Jones could have bypassed the long jump and declared her intention to win four golds here. Maybe it wouldn't have resonated quite so much in the international media, but it still would have been a huge story. She still would have come here as the athlete of the Games. With that in mind, someone asked her in the post-jump press conference if she regretted even attempting the long jump.
"No, I don't," she said. "There are a lot of women out there who would love to have the bronze. I deserved to be in the competition, though some other people would tell you otherwise. This bronze medal isn't going to make me crawl into a shell and never look at the event again. I jumped far in the past and I think I can jump far in the future. If anything, this will just motivate me in next year's world championships and looking ahead to Athens in 2004."
Don't cry any tears for her. This was her idea, remember. Jones is already a millionaire, having aligned herself with a major athletic shoe company and made countless commercials. Going for five golds gave all the attention an athlete could ask for, and she seemed to revel in the attempt.
After losing in the 1,500 meters for just the second time Friday night, world-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj was asked, "Can you explain your failure to 13 million people back in Morocco?"
At least Jones would never have to answer a question like that one. She is watched and admired by millions in the U.S., but the national consciousness doesn't rise and fall with her. A year ago, the average American probably didn't even know who she was -- or that Dreschler was fingered as a steroid user after the old East German sports machine was dismantled.
"I'm disappointed in myself," Jones said. "I let myself down today. Overall, I'll be able to look back on my Sydney experience and smile, because it was a very good experience -- especially if I win two golds in the relays tomorrow."
She will run her heart out in the relays, you can be sure of that. Winning four golds will be an amazing achievement. All she lacked was a little more polish in the long jump She will be 28 years old in Athens. She didn't rule out trying for five golds again. Who knows? Maybe she'll shock us all and try for six next time.
There's always the pole vault.