WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – For years, Marion Jones angrily denied using steroids. On Friday, she admitted it was all a lie.
The three-time Olympic gold medalist pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators when she denied using performance-enhancing drugs, and announced her retirement after the hearing. Jones also pleaded guilty to a second count of lying to investigators about her association with a check-fraud scheme.
Outside the U.S. District Court, Jones broke down in tears as she apologized for her actions, saying she understands she has disappointed her friends, family and supporters.
"It's with a great amount of shame that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust," Jones said, pausing frequently to regain her composure while her mother stood behind her, a supportive hand on her daughter's shoulder.
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"I have been dishonest, and you have the right to be angry with me. I have let (my family) down. I have let my country down, and I have let myself down," she said. "I recognize that by saying I'm deeply sorry, it might not be enough and sufficient to address the pain and hurt that I've caused you.
"Therefore, I want to ask for your forgiveness for my actions, and I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me."
Jones and her mother embraced afterward, the elder Jones telling her daughter, "Good job." The two then climbed into a black limousine with one of Jones' attorneys and drove away without taking questions.
"It's bittersweet," said Travis Tygart, chief executive officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. "Any time a potential American hero admits to cheating us sports fans, people who watch Olympic games, it's bittersweet."
Friday marked a stunning fall from grace for the 31-year-old Jones, once the most celebrated female athlete in the world. She captivated the country with the audacious goal of winning five gold medals at the Sydney Olympics. Though she fell short — only three of her five medals were gold, the other two bronze — her winsome smile and charming personality made her a star.
Seven years later, she is broke, her reputation is ruined and she is looking at prison time.
Jones is the biggest name to be brought down so far in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative scandal. But home run king Barry Bonds also has been linked to BALCO, and a grand jury is still investigating whether he lied to federal investigators.
Bonds denied ever knowingly taking performance-enhancing drugs. In testimony before a grand jury in 2003, Bonds said he believed a clear substance and a cream given to him by his trainer were flaxseed oil and an arthritis balm.
"The federal government will vigorously prosecute individuals who provide false statements to its agents," said Scott N. Schools, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California.
In court, Jones, seated at the defense table and speaking in a clear voice through a microphone, said she lied to a federal investigator in November 2003 when he asked if she had used performance-enhancing drugs.
"I answered that I had not. This was a lie, your honor," she said.
Jones said she took steroids from September 2000 to July 2001 and said she was told by her then-coach Trevor Graham that she was taking flaxseed oil when it was actually "the clear." That's a performance-enhancing drug linked to BALCO, the lab at the center of the steroids scandal in professional sports.
"I consumed this substance several times before the Sydney Olympics and continued using it after," Jones told the judge. "By November 2003, I realized he was giving me performance-enhancing drugs."
She said she "felt different, trained more intensely" and experienced "faster recovery and better times" while using the substance.
"He told me to put it under my tongue for a few seconds and swallow it," she said. "He told me not to tell anyone."
Jones was released on her own recognizance and was due back in court Jan. 11 for sentencing.
In the check-fraud scheme, Jones admitted lying about her knowledge of the involvement of Tim Montgomery, the father of her son Monty, in a scheme to cash millions of dollars worth of stolen or forged checks. Montgomery; Jones' longtime agent Charles Wells; and a former coach, Olympian Steve Riddick, have all been convicted in the scam.
Prosecutors have suggested to Jones that the prison term will be a maximum of six months, although the judge has the discretion to change that. The maximum sentence on each count is five years and a $250,000 fine, for a total of 10 years and $500,000.
"This is a sad day for sport. The only good that can be drawn from today's revelations is that her decision to finally admit the truth will play we hope, a key part in breaking the back of the BALCO affair," IOC president Jacques Rogge said.
The International Olympic Committee already has opened an investigation into doping allegations against Jones in December 2004, and said Friday it will step up its probe and move quickly to strip her of her medals.
"Her admission is long overdue and underscores the shame and dishonor that are inherent with cheating," U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth said in a statement. "As further recognition of her complicity in this matter, Ms. Jones should immediately step forward and return the Olympic medals she won while competing in violation of the rules."
In Jones' case, that would include the 2000 Olympics, where she won gold in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 1,600-meter relay and bronze in the long jump and 400-meter relay.
Jones also would have faced a long competition ban from USADA, but that could be a moot point with her retirement.
"You're vindicated, but it doesn't make you feel any happier this is going on," said Dick Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency. "The fact that she was using the performance-enhancing drugs is not a surprise. People suspected strongly or knew, but couldn't prove the use,"
"When something seems too good to be true, it probably is."
Suspicions and doping allegations have dogged Jones for years. Her ex-husband, C.J. Hunter, was busted for doping, and Tim Montgomery, the father of her son Monty, was stripped of his world record in the 100 meters in connection with the BALCO case.
Jones herself was one of the athletes who testified before a grand jury in 2003 in the BALCO investigation. In August 2006, one of her urine samples tested positive for EPO, but she was cleared when a backup sample tested negative.
She had vehemently denied all doping allegations, even issuing this emphatic declaration in 2004: "I have never, ever used performance-enhancing drugs." She also sued BALCO founder Victor Conte after he repeatedly accused Jones of using performance-enhancing drugs and said he watched her inject herself.
But a Sept. 3, 2003, search warrant at BALCO uncovered ledgers, purchases, doping calendars, and various blood-test results connected to Jones and Graham, said Matt Parrella, a federal prosecutor in Northern California.
"I don't feel any sense of vindication," Conte said. "All of us have made poor decisions in our lives and suffered the consequences. Marion is not a bad person."