Exactly what the demise of track druggie Marion Jones and the death of figure-skating badboy Christopher Bowman mean remains for professional philosophers and struggling sports pundits to kick around. This confused and humble observer can only plunge back to the stored memories in my personal hard drive and recall flashes of experiences with both athletes.
Were there moments that foreshadowed Jones’ much-publicized federal court sentencing Friday — such a 21st-century culmination of one-time greatness?
Was Bowman’s lonely death inevitable Thursday night in a $55-a-night motel room at the Budget Inn near Los Angeles, as if a 261-pound former Olympic skater could die anywhere else?
Here’s what I know. Here’s what I saw.
Bowman enlivened too-staid figure skating
I saw Bowman steal the show at the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials, 20 years old and as entertaining and energetic as any male figure skater I’ve witnessed. He winked. He frowned. He stuck his tongue out. He annoyed the fur-coated, staid judges. He wowed the crowd. Bowman the Showman. Hans Brinker From Hell. Great for a sport that too often fashions itself as opera-on-ice.
Before the 1991 U.S. nationals at Target Center, I traveled to Toronto, where Bowman was reinventing himself (for the first time), recovering from cocaine treatment and studying with one of the great skaters and choreographers, Canada’s Toller Cranston.
Cranston was as flamboyant as skaters get when he competed, but a martinet of a coach and an enforcer by the time Bowman got to him. Bowman brought much to Cranston to mold.
“Very good skaters tend to fill up the building no matter how big that building is,” Cranston told me. “Christopher sort of grows into the space. He has an undeniable presence.”
I watched Bowman skate at a private club in downtown Toronto. I visited him in Cranston’s ornate home. Bowman seemed to be taking this phase of his life seriously. But Cranston wasn’t so sure.
“I have an English setter,” he told me. “They have wanderlust. They also are very fond of you. Open the door and they’re gone. They have to be monitored constantly. Like Christopher.”
Still, Bowman made the 1992 Olympic team. He flopped. But he was as quotable and hyper as could be, proving, I wrote then that “the flipside of cockiness is insecurity. He confirms that acting can get a person only so far.”
One exchange remained with me. I found it in the electronic clips over the weekend.
“Hey, I met Herschel Walker at the Olympic Village the other night,” Bowman told me, mentioning the former Viking who was then bobsledding. “I was in awe of him and his status. That’s why I like the village. Athletes from all different sports. Figure skating has the same old people doing the same old thing wearing the same old clothes.”
Did Herschel know who you were when he met you?, I wondered.
“There’s no reason any hard-working, dedicated athlete would ever know who I am,” said Bowman. “I don’t travel in the same circles.”
The last time I saw Bowman was in New Ulm in 1995. Yep, our New Ulm. You don’t know hard times as a figure skater until you’re doing a one-man show in a lightbulb-studded costume called “Grease on Ice” in New Ulm.
He told me then he figured he’d blown $1 million on cocaine at the height of his Olympic career and addiction. “I couldn’t live the straight life because I would have become a fraud,” he said. “I believed my press. I was supposed to be a rebel. I was just an irresponsible little brat.”
His show ended with an Elvis impersonation on ice.
“Elvis has left the building,” the PR announcer screamed as Bowman skated through black curtains. So long, Chris.
Jones extra-special but now scarred forever
On to Jones, whose fall from grace was much more dramatic because she had reached such competitive and commercial heights.
Two events flash before me, both negative, unfortunately, for she was/is a strikingly beautiful, marvelously articulate, astonishingly gifted athlete. Drugs or no drugs, lies or no lies, Marion Jones was special. But now scarred. Forever.
It was a Tuesday morning in Sydney, Australia, at the 2000 Olympics that I saw Jones in a hotel ballroom. Fabled O.J. lawyer Johnnie Cochrane was at her side, defending her then-husband C.J. Hunter, a shot putter, who had tested positive for nandrolone, an anabolic steroid.
Husbands do things that wives don’t know about, but husbands who serve as coaches to their spouses? Jones’ commercially successful image that had been so smartly crafted pre-Sydney was cracking quickly, and that was seven years ago.
“I am here to show my complete support for my husband,” she said then. “I believe the legal system will do what it has to do to clear his name.”
She raced out of the hotel, security surrounding her, en route, we would learn, to cheating her way to five medals.
Next scene burned in my brain was the 2004 U.S. Olympic track trials. By then, the BALCO scandal — which has ensnared baseball star Barry Bonds — was fully under way. Jones was already linked to it and issuing denial after denial — via a public relations firm.
On this hot Saturday in Sacramento, Jones finished fifth in the 100-meter race she’d won for gold in Sydney four years earlier. It meant she wouldn’t run for the United States in that glamour race in Athens.
As we are wont to do at such events, the journalists’ pack surrounded Jones, as she attempted to scoot away on a golf cart. The charm was gone.
“When I talk to you guys, you have something negative to say,” she said. “When I don’t talk to you guys, you have something negative to say. I’d much rather not talk and spend time with my son, if you guys have negative things to say. So, have a nice day.”
I leave it to the New York Times’ Harvey Araton to sum it up better than I. In a column about Jones Saturday, Araton wrote: “Does transcendent stardom blind these people to how far there is to fall?”
I’m afraid it does. It also blinds us to how high we place them on a pedestal of sand.