At her height, Marion Jones was on pace to become the greatest female athlete of all time. She had big time endorsements with Nike and Gatorade. Her amazing win at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, where she became the first female athlete to win five medals, including three gold medals, was then a symbol of national pride. She even graced a Wheaties box.
In 2001, when The New York Times asked Jones if she was “the greatest female track star ever,” she responded no and explained “you need longevity and consistency to be considered the greatest. I haven’t even broken world records yet. In 10 or 15 years, we can then sit down and think about how great it all was. But not now.”
As indicated by her numerous denials about taking performance-enhancing drugs, Jones never expected to end up where she is now. In December of 2007, the International Olympic Committee officially stripped her of the five medals she “won” in Sydney and banned her from competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In January 2008, Jones was sentenced to six months in prison for perjuring herself when questioned about her steroid use as well as her knowledge of a check-fraud scam.
So this is where the John Singleton-directed Marion Jones: Press Pause for ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 series seemingly picks up. Images of Marion Jones, from childhood races to a huge Nike ad as well as Jones draped in the American flag, set the mood before launching with a public service announcement from Marion Jones where she begins “Hi, I’m Marion Jones. I lost the five Olympic medals…”
From there, a litany of voices, including that of a young fan and noted sportswriters William C. Rhoden and Ron Rappaport, mingle with the words of Jones’s initial press conference on the courthouse steps admitting her guilt. John Singleton emerges from behind the camera to ask “Who was Marion Jones at the height of her career?”
It’s a great question. Whether it’s answered or not is up for debate. Yes, there is a recounting of what happened and the severity of the act, underscored even more so by the great Edwin Moses. There’s also a dramatic recollection by Jones and her attorney Rich Nichols of what happened during the questioning where she actually perjured herself. Jones even admits that fear of losing her lifestyle, among other reasons, prompted her to lie.
And she did it very well, even fooling her attorney Nichols. As proof, Singleton presents several of those denials, including one in which Jones told a crowd: “I want to know exactly what you want to know: why are you trying to ban an athlete who has not tested positive for any banned substance?” Jones even ended with a cocky “what, what” that seemingly emphasized her frustration at being falsely accused.
But the truth didn’t stay hidden for long. And, of course, Jones’s implication in the Bay
Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) scandal where she and prominent male athletes like Barry Bonds were accused of using performance enhancing drugs distributed by the company eventually blew up in her face. That’s not the story of this documentary, however. Instead, that’s the backdrop.The Marion Jones of today, including her six months of prison, is the main story or, rather, the story that Jones wants to emphasize. Speaking very candidly about her experience as a wife and mother being imprisoned, Jones is very compelling. As she and her husband Obadele Thompson, who won a bronze medal for his native Barbados in the 2000 Olympics, recount the day Jones had to report to prison, it’s hard not to feel their pain.
When Jones describes her prison experiences, particularly her stay in solitary
confinement, it’s riveting television, mainly because we rarely hear about prison from the perspective of a mother. Not being able to call her oldest son Monty, whose father is Tim Montgomery, another Olympic athlete disgraced by performance enhancing drugs, is heartbreaking, especially because he was old enough to notice her absence.
Her release is equally compelling. Watching her with her three children, including the birth of her daughter following her prison stay, is heartwarming. It’s a side of Marion Jones we have never seen. Actually, it’s a side of the female athlete that we’ve rarely seen. As Jones discusses balancing her role as a mother with joining the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock, she becomes not just Marion Jones on the comeback trail but millions of other working women trying to fit it all in.
The portrait is highly sympathetic. It’s so hard not to like her still, particularly when she’s warning young people not to make the mistakes she made or all smiles playing with her children. And therein is the dilemma. Jones is so charismatic and comes across as so sincere that you don’t want to root against her. Never mind that her role in a check fraud scheme is never brought up. There are no interviews with former husband CJ Hunter, whose disqualification for a positive drug testing during the Sydney Olympics really kicked rumors about Jones’ own steroid use into high gear, or any of the coaches who co-signed her drug use.
Basically, it’s Jones’s word and her word only. Missing is additional insight and details about how prevalent steroid use is in track and field and how it snared the gifted Jones. There are allusions to it of course but no hardcore details. Her book, On the Right Track, is a tad bit more helpful but still avoids the really hard questions.
For the most part, Marion Jones: Press Pause is still the Marion Jones we’ve always wanted to see: a superior athlete with a heart of gold. Only here, she’s the fallen hero determined to reconnect to her inner goodness. Seeing her with her kids, who appear healthy, won’t convince naysayers that performance enhancing drugs should be banned in the first place.
Far from the hard-hitting look at steroid use in track and field needed, Marion Jones: Press Pause is very Marion Jones friendly, elevating her but offering little else of long-term substance.