Track and field in the U.S. was a mess by the time of the national outdoor championships in Indianapolis last June. Major meets had been canceled, support from sponsors was dwindling, and less than two weeks earlier the ballyhooed Michael Johnson-Donovan Bailey match race had bombed spectacularly. In the early evening of June 12 the stadium at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis was so empty that one reporter thought of trying to discern if every spectator was in fact credentialed as an athlete, coach or journalist. Even the weather was funereal, as fierce black thunderheads crowded the twilight sky. It felt as if the flags should be at half-mast.
Then, like an alarm piercing the stillness, Marion Jones shook the sport from its torpor. A 21-year-old former high school track phenom, Jones had spent most of the previous four years playing basketball at North Carolina, letting her track talents stagnate. On this night she ran a quarterfinal heat of the women's 100 meters in 10.98 seconds and then scorched a 10.92 in the semis, becoming one of the fastest women in U.S. history. More thrilling than her times was her style. She was youth and speed and joy wrapped together, a young woman just starting to explore her talent. Before the meet was finished, Jones would win both the 100, in 10.97, and the long jump (left), at 22'9". Over the course of a dazzling summer she would take gold medals in the 100 and the 4 x 100 relay at the World Championships and dominate the sprints on the European circuit.
Track and field in the U.S. won't die—it will always have its hard-core supporters, its track nuts—but it could disappear into the black hole of the public's consciousness, surfacing quadrennially for the Olympic (lames and then fading again. Think skiing. Think swimming. Only stars can keep a sport commercially alive, and track's are getting old. Marion Jones is young and fast. She is hope in pinspikes and a unitard. And it never did rain on that warm June night.