Tonya Williams and Marion Jones were teammates and roommates.

They played basketball together at the University of North Carolina and won a national championship before Jones went off to become the face of the Sydney Olympic Games and then on to fortune and fame.

When I wrote a column last summer about my cynicism regarding Jones' claims that she did not use steroids, it was Williams who came to her defense.

Williams sent me an e-mail, in which she said, among other things, "Basically, you are indicating that she is guilty by association ... If they had something on her, she would have been banned ... So give her a break. Let her performance speak for her ability."

As we all learned last week, that was a mistake. Jones fooled everybody, including many, if not most, of those closest to her, despite her connection to BALCO, her musculature, her performances, etc. It was difficult for anyone not to believe Jones, given the absolute vehemence with which she defended herself with the look-you-in-the-eyes denials and the defamation suits she brazenly brought against accusers.

"The truth is my friend and transparency my ally," she once said. "I have never used performance-enhancing drugs."

In a stunning development last week, Jones tearfully admitted that she was lying, that she had used steroids for years. The apology was welcome and needed, but it can undo only so much damage. There's no way to go back to Sydney and put clean, deserving athletes on the podium while their national anthems play and their nations proudly revel in the moment, or to repay them lost paydays and endorsements that come with medals. There's no way to restore the medal you cost your relay teammates. There's no way to reclaim your good name.

One IAAF official noted that Jones will go down as "one of the biggest frauds in sporting history." At 31, Jones has guaranteed herself a spot in sports infamy; fraud and her name will never be separated. Like Pete Rose, Shoeless Joe, Ben Johnson, Barry Bonds, Floyd Landis, Raphael Palmeiro, Tonya Harding, Justin Gatlin and many more.

What happened? I'm not the first to note this, but Americans used to be the good guys and now they're not. Once upon a time it was athletes from the evil Eastern Bloc empire who were taking performance-enhancing drugs. Now it is Americans.

So what lessons do we learn?

(1) Just because an athlete passes a drug test doesn't mean he or she is innocent. This defense has always struck me as naive and lame. The most shocking thing about Ben Johnson's bust in the '88 Olympics wasn't that he was taking drugs — everyone in the sport knew that — it was that he got caught by a drug test. Jones never did flunk a drug test; she got caught by lies to federal investigators. It was like getting Al Capone on income tax charges.

"The anti-doping procedures ... are very easy to beat and there are many Olympic records and world records and Olympic gold medals that have been won that, in my opinion, were clearly won by athletes using performance-enhancing substances," says the ubiquitous Victor Conte, whose BALCO labs designed undetectable steroids and left a paper trail to everyone from Jones to Barry Bonds and dozens of other famous athletes.

(2) You can't believe the athletes' denials any more than the tests. A year ago Jones looked into the camera on "Good Morning America" and said, "I've always said, and I always will continue to say, I believe in a drug-free sport. I have never ever taken performance-enhancing drugs." She even hired the same spin-control artist Bill Clinton used in the wake of Monica-gate.

(3) A high percentage of athletes are ingesting steroids or human growth hormone without detection. If the tests are catching only a small percentage of those who are using, then there are a lot more out there who are using drugs.

This is how bad the situation is: Jones returned her five Olympic medals this week, but who gets them now? The runner-up to Jones in the 100-meter dash was caught in a drug controversy four years later at the Athens Games and suspended for two years.

I never believed for a moment that Jones didn't do steroids, and there are many others out there I believe are equally guilty. That's what cheaters do — they cast doubt on all of them. Now that Jones has become the first prominent athlete to fall in the BALCO scandal, let's hope others (Bonds?) follow.

As for Williams, she was kind enough to contact me again this week after her friend's admission. "I am Marion's friend," she wrote, "so of course I still support her ... I hate (that) she ever felt that this was something she needed to do. She made some really bad decisions, but I do not think that makes her a bad person ... She has apologized. I think she is genuine in her remorse for her actions. She hopes that her story will inspire young, upcoming athletes to make positive choices in their lives."

She should have thought of that before she took the drugs.


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