HOUSTON — Marion Jones, who runs faster than any woman in the world, has a problem: She has positioned herself for big-time failure.
What she has done is set her sights and her legs on winning an astounding five gold medals in the Sydney Olympics - her first Olympics - starting in four months.
If she does, she will be bedecked in the most gold ever won in a single Olympics by an American woman, surpassing the four swimmer Amy Van Dyken won in 1996 in Atlanta. Additionally, Ms. Jones would end up second in history to East German swimmer Kristin Otto, who won six in 1988.
In view of the "focus on five," about which she endlessly discourses, she now admits it might have been better not to blab so much so soon. Loose lips can sink ships.
To begin with, running track is such a fragile sport. A misbehaved leg muscle that decides to pull instead of push at an inopportune moment can ruin years of preparation. But at this juncture, Jones is a firm choice to win both the 100 and 200 meters and seemingly a lock to be a participant on two relay teams - the 4x100 and 4x400 - that look to be golden opportunities.
So four golds is a legitimate prospect, not the stuff of fantasy. But that's one short in Jones's gold rush.
Her fifth event is the long jump, and it has been bedeviling her something awful. Recently in Japan, she tried to jump but it was an adventure in the wilderness. After her dismal results, she says she thought to herself, "Well, back to the drawing board." Truth is, it's mighty late on the competitive calendar to be taking remedial trips to the drawing board.
"I'm still optimistic," she insisted cheerfully here earlier this week at a gathering of Olympic officials, top athletes, media, and sponsors. But she may also be whistling past the cemetery.
Her troubles, she says, involve getting down the runway in some sort of reliable rhythm. At the moment, the beat is all wrong. Among her difficulties: She finds herself thinking about a chaotic mixture of things prior to her jump - speed, head up, chest out, good extension, height, feet up. Pondering all these things is resulting in not much. "It's frustrating," she concedes.
Of course it is. Here is an elite, world-class athlete, gifted in ways most can only imagine, who is struggling while the world watches.
But the far bigger point: Hooray for Jones.
What she has done is bravely put herself and her talent on the line. She has created drama. She's starring in a soap opera that could transfix the world come September. Will she continue backsliding in the long jump? (One unimpressed writer suggests her "technique would shame a sand crab.") Or will she get it together and soar?
Unbowed, Jones says, "I know I'm ready to jump far." Maybe, but she has no current empirical evidence to support her assertion.
Aspiring to perhaps unreachable goals is something few do. It's far easier to aim lower and succeed. The brilliant former Olympic wrestling champion, Dan Gable, says, "The easiest thing to do in the world is pull the covers up over your head and go back to sleep."
While having reach exceed grasp is a nice philosophical thought, it's painful and maddening when you are the one doing the reaching.
Jones, world 100-meter champ in both 1997 and 1999 and third in the long jump last year, is in the painful and maddening stage.
And it could be she'll focus so much on putting the long back into her jumping that she won't spend enough time keeping the speed in her sprinting. The irony would be if she won the long jump and failed in the races.
For now, Jones remains her typically sunny self. Thinking about the long jump, she says, "I feel in my heart that I'm going to do something great in that event."
Giving blood, sweat, and tears to any endeavor means anything short of total victory can result in a vicious emotional downer. When former Tennessee football star Johnny Majors, second in the Heisman Trophy voting for best football player in college, fumbled at a key moment and his team lost an important game, his mother consoled him: "Oh, Johnny, everybody burns the biscuits once in a while."
If Marion Jones burns the biscuits, is she a failure?
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society