It is painful when a public figure admits to cheating. But it's even more painful when that person is a special role model and beloved national champion. So with Marion Jones, who won three gold medals at the Sydney Olympics. She is coming clean.

That means she's not only now "clean" from steroids, but she's cleaning up the record about her using banned substances during the Games. She did, she says. And she'll say she did in court.

Her apology and explanation are welcome, if a bit late.

Harder to digest is the taste of melancholy her confession leaves behind. Americans in living rooms around the nation stood and cheered as she won five medals in track and carried herself and the American flag with dignity. Now, those medals will likely be returned. The fact she got her steroids from BALCO — the laboratory at the center of the Barry Bonds investigation — is also fueling comments that with Jones fessing up, the way is open for investigators to hold the homerun slugger's feet to the fire.

We hope so.

Meanwhile, Americans are left to mull over the obvious question. Given the scandal surrounding East German female swimmers years ago, don't Olympic athletes see that dabbling in steroids will not only ruin their health and reputation, but tarnish their sport?

The answer is yes, they see it. But their competitive juices are so strong they think exposure is worth the risk when the payoff is being a world champion. The fact those "championships" are tarnished probably doesn't haunt athletes until afterward.

Such, at least, seems to be the case with Jones. Her trainer apparently suckered her in, and she didn't know the syringe was loaded. Looking back, she says, she should have realized what was happening. But at the moment, the lure of immortality was just too heady.

That's not the stuff dreams are made of.

It's the stuff tragedies are made of.

And it means Jones now joins Macbeth, McGwire and Douglas MacArthur in that Hall of Fame dedicated to heroes done in by their pride.