July 12, 2004 12:00 PM

She is determined to let nothing interfere with her quest for more gold medals at this summer’s Olympic Games. So six mornings a week, after she changes, dresses and feeds her year-old son Monty, Marion Jones heads off to the track in Cary, N.C., to train for six or seven hours. And when she’s finished, the sprinter known as the World’s Fastest Woman still has some running to do. “When we’re talking on the phone, I can hear Monty in the background,” says a friend. “Sometimes she’ll put the phone down and chase after him. He’s at that stage—into everything.”

With the start of trials to select the U.S. Olympic track-and-field team looming on July 9, the 28-year-old Jones—who won three gold and two bronze medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics—still has hurdles to clear just to get to the starting blocks in Athens. Shadowed by the growing scandal involving the use of performance-enhancing drugs among some top athletes in professional and Olympic sports—though so far not herself accused by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency of any violations—Jones has vigorously defended herself. After submitting twice to questioning on the subject, once by a federal grand jury and later by the USADA at her own request, on June 16 she challenged the agency to conduct any further investigation in public. “I only have one reputation,” she said recently, “and that is what I am fighting to preserve.”

It hasn’t helped Jones’s image that ex-husband and shot-putter C.J. Hunter was banned in 2000 from competition for steroid use, or that boyfriend Tim Montgomery, 29, has been charged by the USADA with the use of steroids and other banned substances and may be banned from competition for life. (Montgomery is fighting the charges and has requested arbitration from an international sports panel.) On June 24 the San Francisco Chronicle published what it claimed were leaks from Montgomery’s federal grand jury testimony last fall in which he allegedly admits he used performance-enhancing drugs. Even more explosive, he’s quoted as saying that Victor Conte, the man who supplied those drugs, “would brag on” having given performance-enhancing substances to baseball superstar Barry Bonds. (Bonds denies the charges and has threatened to sue Montgomery.) “We are outraged,” said Montgomery’s spokesperson in response to the purported testimony. “Tim maintains that he did nothing wrong.”

The alleged evidence against Montgomery and the three other athletes against whom the USADA is seeking sanctions—like that reportedly against Jones—comes from the files of BALCO, a San Francisco-area sports-nutrition laboratory whose owner, Conte, has been indicted on federal steroid-distribution charges. Jones’s lawyers call the investigation a “witch hunt” and threaten to sue the USADA if they try to keep the sprinter off the U.S. Olympic team.

It is unclear how strong the USADA’s case is against Jones, since the agency refuses to comment. Her lawyers maintain the gist of the case is a 2001 training calendar—which they insist is not Jones’s—found in a raid on BALCO’s offices last fall. It bears cryptic notations, such as the letter “C” and “start clear.” Federal investigators have said in the past that “C” stands for a substance called the “cream,” containing the steroid testosterone; the “clear” supposedly refers to the designer steroid THG. But Jones’s supporters argue that the USADA will have to do better than that if it wants to keep her from the Olympics. “For this to be considered any kind of proof is ludicrous,” says Jim Coleman, a Duke Law School professor who has represented several other athletes on doping charges. “They are trying to scare athletes into pleading guilty.” Coleman and other experts contend there is no way to establish conclusively that the training calendar was even for Jones: The log, for example, contains a listing of what appear to be 100-meter times—but for a world-class man.

Jones and her team are waiting to see if the USADA takes the next step of notifying her that it intends to present its findings to an arbitration panel. But in the meantime, the strain is clearly taking its toll in the Jones-Montgomery household. At the last U.S. meet before the trials—the Pre-fontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., on June 19—both came up short: Montgomery placed a disappointing sixth in the 100 meters, while Jones finished fifth in her 100-meter race. (She did, however, win the long jump.) “It’s hard,” says Montgomery of the past several weeks. “I cope by just training and eating and sleeping, and that’s it.”

“When something like this happens, your true character comes out,” says Jones’s friend Charlotte Smith-Taylor, her roommate and basketball teammate at the University of North Carolina. “Marion is a fighter. This is her future; she’s not going to let anyone destroy that.”

Bill Hewitt. Maureen Harrington in Eugene and Michaele Ballard in Charlotte, N.C.

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