On that Friday, at 10 a.m., the timing will become even more precise. The starter gun's first bark will launch Jones on a nine-day offensive at the Olympic Stadium in Homebush Bay. Her schedule will be excruciatingly divided and subdivided, etched ultimately by split thousandths of a second. She'll try to win five gold medals, negotiating an intricate shoal of qualifying heats, medal races, meals, catnaps, jumps and baton passes. Five golds in one Olympics has not been done by a track athlete since the Flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi, blew through Paris in 1924. Weeks before the opening ceremony, Jones is already the story of the Games.
This happens sometimes: an athlete announces a bid for multiple medals and lays siege to the spotlight. Spitz, Heiden, Lewis, Blair. Michael Johnson with his 200-m/400-m double an Olympiad ago. "It's great to be the headliner," says Johnson, who seems relieved that he qualified to run only the 400 m this time around. "But it's very intense, an awful lot of pressure."
"I'm trying to not get into the hype," says Jones as her cheeks are dusted. "I think I've done a good job with the pressure so far." The French makeup artist looks Jones up and down and jabs for her knees with the powder puff. "Zis heeere?" Jones' knees are singed with burns caused by taking a sprinter's stance on the coarse surface of the track dozens of times each day. "No," she says sweetly but emphatically. "No that's me."
Jones is always sweet and usually emphatic. She is asked as she sits there whether her storied who's-running-for-second-place? confidence has been overhyped. Her answer is delivered without a trace of meanness, but it is definite: "I do see it like that that I'll win. When people are taken aback by that, I'm surprised. I would hope those women you saw racing against me last night are going to the Games to win. I don't know how realistic it is for everybody, but..."
Here's how realistic it is in the sprints. The night before, this rippled 5-ft. 10-in. racing machine ran away with her opponents' gold-medal dreams before 70,000 track-crazed Belgians. Jones, not known for her starts, popped the second fastest reaction time in a nine-woman field and plowed through a headwind to a 10.83 clocking to win the 100 m. In Zurich a few weeks earlier, she had a terrible start, then chased down the pack, nipping fellow American Inger Miller at the wire. When Jones is slow out of the blocks, she wins. When she's fast, there's no contest. Her rivals are left without solutions, short of finding a Tonya Harding among them to execute some kneecapping. In Brussels the women hung around after the race muttering about a quick gun, doing what they could to keep their heads in the game.
Jones' big week in Sydney will also include the 200m dash, which she won at the U.S. trials with a time of 21.94 sec., and two four-person relays, the 4-100m and the 4-400m. Jones hasn't competed much at 400m the way meets are arranged, it's hard to fit in. But her one 400m this year produced the second fastest time in the world. Too bad she doesn't practice. Not that she lacks for activity. If she is to claim gold in all five events, she'll have to run at least 10 races, including qualifying heats, and take as many as nine jumps, in nine days.
The long-jump competition is an entirely different proposition. In Brussels, Jones finished fifth, fouling on four of six attempts. Not only has Jones not dominated this season, she hasn't been especially good at the event. Critics say she simply doesn't know how to jump, and in truth her style on the field is as artless as her form on the track is elegant. She pumps her arms, runs like hell, then jumps; if she fouls, she moves back a step before ignition. Nevertheless, she was the top-ranked women's long jumper in 1998, and with her package the speed, the will, the sense of destiny there is, in the back of her mind and everyone else's, the thought that at any moment she could uncork a stratospheric leap.
When Marion was a kid, her toys were sticks and balls, not dolls, and as with Tiger and Andre, there are stories aplenty about Marion the post-toddler prodigy. A feisty little girl, she could outrace any boy in the L.A. burbs. She was special and knew it. At age 5 in 1981, she watched Diana marry Charles on TV and asked about the red carpet. Her mom told her the carpet was rolled out for important people. "Well, when I go places," Marion said, "why don't they roll it out for me?"
Jones did not live a red-carpet childhood. She does not speak to her father, and her relationship with her mother, also named Marion, is delicate. As she describes it, "What happened there was I got injured, and without sports I got depressed. I moved away from my mom emotionally, and in college I drifted further. We still don't have the typical mother-daughter relationship where she's baking me cookies, but we're comfortable. I love her, and she loves me, and we're fine."
Marion's father, once he was divorced from her mother, had no desire to be involved in his daughter's upbringing. In a few particularly painful instances, Marion would head into Los Angeles to seek out her dad at the Laundromat where he worked. She would spot him in his office, then be told he wasn't around. She'd look again, and he'd be gone. When Marion's stepfather Ira Toler died of a stroke in 1987, the 11-year-old was left with no father and no father figure. She has often said that given the chance, "I would have been a daddy's girl," and she sometimes wonders if she won all those trophies to impress a man she never knew. "I've made no further attempts to get in contact with my father since I was maybe 19," she says. "Obviously, he's made no attempts to contact me. It's a nonfactor."
Friends wonder whether her relationship with C.J. Hunter, the man she married, fills that paternal void. At the University of North Carolina, Jones was a basketball star as a freshman point guard, she led the team to the national championship in 1994 whose track career was interrupted by a broken foot. In 1996 Hunter, a former NCAA champion shot putter from Penn State and a Carolina coach, became a friend during her rehab. Already separated from his wife, he soon separated from the university because it barred coaches from dating athletes.
Jones sees the 320-lb. Hunter as a teddy bear; the press sees him more as a grizzly. When a journalist asked Jones last year if it was true that "your mother is not happy about your wedding," Hunter, a man of few words, drew the scribe aside for a lesson in etiquette: "You are a f___ing idiot!"
Hunter, a gold-medal prospect in the shot put, is clearly reticent as he hovers around the edges of the photo shoot. He has smiles only for his wife. Jones is easygoing with him as she smooths his shirt. She teases him and hardly seems in thrall to a Svengali. His career advice to her has been sage. He counseled Jones to quit basketball for track and brought in her coach, Trevor Graham.
Nonetheless, the cloddish European press labeled the pair "Beauty and the Beast" last summer during the world championships in Seville, where Jones won the 100 m and Hunter won the shot. The Aussies will be more polite. "I don't know if it will be fun, exactly," says Jones, having told the makeup artist she'll use her scrunchy because rubber bands ruin her hair. "It won't be an easy ordeal, but it should be exciting." She's about to find out. And, luckily, so are we.