SYDNEY, Australia - As one of the best female sprinters ever fled for France, the woman who wants to become track and field's dominant figure finally arrived on the Olympic stage.
American Marion Jones began her "Drive for Five" gold medals at 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium yesterday, breezing through her preliminary of the 100-meter dash. Jones is on a historic quest, to become the first woman to win five gold medals in the Olympics' centerpiece sport. She is favored to win the 100 and 200, will struggle with her steps in the long jump, then run on the American 400 and 1,600 relay teams.
Jones, a 24-year-old from Los Angeles, was a college basketball star turned gimpy-legged sprinter in 1996, when France's Marie-Jose Perec won the 200 and 400 in Atlanta. Jones had a year of high school left when she qualified for the U.S. team as a relay alternate in 1992. Confident that her time would come, Jones didn't go to Barcelona, where Perec earned her first Olympic 400 title.
Jones is here to be embraced, by an American TV network in need of a programming boost and a sport looking for happy news to drown out drug innuendos.
Perec? She pulled a Greta Garbo. She wants to be alone. The Frenchwoman arrived in Australia in disguise and left for her home by way of Singapore yesterday. The long-legged, catwalk model said that she was harassed by an intruder at her hotel and hounded by the Australian media.
It's tame by Fleet Street standards, but the tabloid headline in today's Sydney Daily Telegraph took this view of the fiasco: "Mademoiselle Chicken."
As is usually the case, Australia's Cathy Freeman has galvanized this nation. Perec is the two-time Olympic champion in the 400, the event the Olympic torch-lighter is favored to win Monday. Perec has ducked Freeman since Atlanta, raced few times anywhere, and her fitness has been called into question.
Perec will not defend her title in the 200. Inger Miller is out of the 100 to rest a hamstring strain, and those absences should make it easier for Jones in the two sprints.
Jones watched the start of the track program on TV in her lodging. She liked what she saw of the Olympic track, and her expectations of the venue were met when she competed. Jones easily handled her preliminary, in 11.20 seconds.
"I sat in my apartment this morning and watched the women's 800," Jones said. "It's unbelievable. I'm very confident."
Jones' schedule doesn't turn demanding until next week, when the 200, long jump and both relays will be contested over four days.
The day did provide a tinge of familial disappointment for Jones. The first event on the program was qualifying in the men's shot put. Her husband, C.J. Hunter, is the world champion, but he had to pull out of the Games two weeks ago with an injury. Besides Hunter and Perec, the track and field meeting will miss American miler Regina Jacobs, who also pulled out with an injury.
There was no shortage of stars on the first of eight days of Olympic track. On another morning bursting in sunshine, Michael Johnson took the first half of his opening 400 hard, cast an annoying glance at the Brit on the inside and extended as little effort as possible. He is expected to repeat and place an assault on his world record of 43.18, if the winds don't swirl inside Olympic Stadium.
The 100-meter runners then came out, in the first of four rounds of an event that will conclude tomorrow in anticipated wins for the young Americans.
Canadian Donovan Bailey looked chunky for a defending Olympic champion, while Maurice Greene started in a style typical of HSI, the Los Angeles-based track and field club. The world record holder decelerated the last 40 meters and took his 100 preliminary in a dawdling 10.34 seconds - and "won" because he was slower than fellow American Jon Drummond and Trinidad and Tobago's Ato Boldon, some of his training partners at UCLA's Drake Stadium.
"I'm glad to get the show started," Greene said. "Jon and Ato and I have a bet to see who can run slowest and win in the first round. I won."