Writing from Oklahoma, where disgraced Olympic champion runner Marion Jones spoke at four back-to-back mega church events on April 7.
I read about Jones' appearances, hosted by People's Church -- a Walmart-sized place of worship a few blocks east of The Daily Oklahoman headquarters -- in a newspaper article this week, and could not miss the opportunity to hear Jones' "testimony."
Jones is that Sydney 2000 track and field champion who once graced magazine covers, talk shows sets and just about everywhere leading up to Australia's Games. On her quest to bring home five medals, she came home with three gold and two bronze.
Most remember also her national headlines upon admitting she lied to federal investigators about performance enhancement. This is what I remembered.
"What are her reflections and lessons learned from jail time?," I wondered.
My choice of the third session was by design -- not too early, not the final session with the usual "we have a plane to catch" rushed departure. Arriving at 11:30 a.m. seemed just right, with hopes but not high expectations for a few minutes to speak with Jones between sessions.
It was no surprise the 20-car line to enter the church's massive parking lot with welcome signs proclaiming "Get ready for an unforgettable experience!"
What did surprise me was the thousands of worshipers singing and clapping to a Christian rock band on stage to warm up the crowd. People's Church, I learned, simulcasts to other places of worship, and Jones' appearance packed in a near-capacity crowd the pastor compared to Easter Sunday.
Before Jones took the stage, a video showed Jones during her pre-Olympic running days and on the court at UNC. Brief sound bytes from coaches, friends and even Olympian Edwin Moses spoke of Jones' athletic prowess. Then Jones' press conference admission of lying played in black and white before some of her post-incarceration feats (playing in the WNBA) brought the viewers to present day.
Jones at last took the stage and shared a mostly candid conversation with the pastor and congregation. Jones did not take questions from the audience, but the pastor did a decent job asking the questions on the minds of many in attendance.
Through her presentation, I learned a few new facts. For instance, Jones was nine and living in Los Angeles during the inspiring 1984 Olympic Games in her home town (though she did not attend in person, the Games inspired her to pursue Olympic dreams).
We also learned Jones made her first Olympic track team for Seoul 1988, opting not to compete because, she said, she preferred to wait for a spotlight to be on her potential feats (rather than share glory as part of a relay team, for instance). Jones majored in mass communications and journalism -- news to me.
It was clear from a young age that Jones set big goals and had a good habit of achieving them.
Jones also did a fine job of admitting her "one bad choice" and detailing the consequences -- jail time at a Texas facility for worst offenders -- after the judge in her case opted to set Jones as an example for others. Jones described moments from solitary confinement and how she found God during this time to reflect.
"God knew the plan all along," said Jones. "Life doesn't stop when you make a poor choice."
Here's where things got muddy for me. Did she say, "poor choice" or was that "poor choices?"
For most of the presentation -- in the video, and during her conversation -- Jones repeatedly came back to a singular poor choice (lying to investigators). Only one time during her 40 minute presentation did Jones allude to other bad choices, stating that in the lead-up to Sydney, Jones surrounded herself with "people telling you what you want to hear" and that she "distanced myself from those who had my best interests in heart (notably, family members)."
I kept waiting for Jones to talk about how God was there when decisions were made about her Olympic training and the 1x1 relationships that got her in a mess that made her lie later (weren't there, like, hundreds or thousands of little lies that crescendo-ed with the whopper that sent her to jail?).
"God knew the plan all along," said Jones, specifically citing that God was there during the [whopper] lie.
But again, no mention by Jones of the years of likely other fibs and mistakes.
"With success, I thought I had it all," said Jones. "Now at 37, I know I have it all." And her life remains a "work in progress," she added.
After the presentation, I inquired with the pastor and Jones' contact, Susie, about a few minutes to speak with Jones and ask some follow-up questions. In explaining Jones was not available for media questions, Susie very politely but told me, in church on the main stage, that she would be emailing me by Sunday afternoon so I could get the following questions to Jones:
- During your time in solitary confinement, Marion, what reflections did you have on truth and consequences during the pre-2000 through Sydney years?
- If you miss the Olympic Family as much as you seem to, what steps have you considered and executed/offered to help the International Olympic Committee and international track federations fight doping?
- You discussed greed in some ways, and pride in a less direct manner -- how have you reflected on each in recent years?
- Can you please share more about the logistics of returning your Olympic medals (the physical medals -- who boxed them up and shipped them back) and whether you've spoken with the competitors who received them upon their return to the IOC?
- If you spoke with these fellow athletes, how did the experience of meeting them (post-scandal) compare with the weight (and relief) of other admissions?
After Marion Jones' session today, I did more research and realize some answers to my five questions may be on the pages of her 2010 autobiography, so there's time to find and read a copy while awaiting Susie's email (did I mention Susie told me she'd be emailing today, while she was shaking my hand on stage in church?).
As for Jones' lack of candor about little versus whopper lies, it seems I'm not the first to question this.
The People's Church exit gave me one more item on which to reflect -- the exit signs from their parking lot proclaim "It's all about changed lives." Amen!
Photos via SusanFarley.com, Babble.com and PraiseCleveland.com