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Move on to forgiveness

Kate Barrett | Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Do you remember Marion Jones? The sprinter everyone loved to love at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney? She won five medals, three gold and two bronze, and won us all over because not only was she fast, she was beautiful, articulate, confident, and – so we thought – all we could ask for as the public face of America during those Games.

So you’ve probably heard during the last two weeks that those medals had a little extra somethin’ behind them, and it wasn’t flaxseed oil.

Now that Jones and the rest of her relay teams have had to return the medals (the 100m individual gold now apparently going, ironically, to Katerina Thanou, herself convicted for doping and perjury at the Athens games in 2004); now that Jones is apparently broke, medal-free and facing jail time; now that she has retired from track and field and certainly has lost any hope of finding work in the fields of product endorsements or public speaking; now what do we do?

Or at least, have we learned anything?

I would propose three take-home thoughts. One, maybe we ought to reevaluate this whole “athletes as heroes” thing we seem so compulsively attached to as a nation, but that would be a subject for another column. Two, I think Marion Jones is actually a big winner here. And three, we should all forgive her, if we haven’t already. It’s good practice.

When I first talked with one of my sons about the story after Jones pleaded guilty and publicly confessed, he was horrified. “But now she has to give up her medals!” he said. True, she did. And she has to live with an even bigger asterisk after her name than, ahem, Barry Bonds, because on the greatest, most storied athletic stage on the planet, her victories were a sham.

I do believe, though, that however late her confession, it may be the best decision she’s ever made. Now at least she has been honest with herself and the rest of us.

As she said about the first time she was questioned on her possible steroid use in 2003, “I lied to protect myself. It was an incredibly stupid thing to do. I made the decision to break the law and have to take full responsibility for doing so. All of this was after my attorneys had specifically told me several times the need to be totally truthful with the agents.”

Imagine living with that lie and others for four years, even lying again and again to keep up the pretense, and now finally being able to look at herself in the mirror and know she at long last acted with integrity.

She has publicly taken, as she says, “full responsibility” for her actions. In a statement she read before entering the courtroom to file her plea she spoke of her “great amount of shame.”

Yes, though you could certainly argue that it took her far too long, you might also say that she has finally truly set a good example.

Why should we forgive her? I have no idea if or how Jones’ faith played into her decision to come clean, but our Christian tradition teaches that we are all sinners, that we all need God’s forgiveness. In the Catholic Church, the acts of confessing our sins and receiving forgiveness are so important that the Sacrament of Reconciliation recognizes them as an effective sign of God’s grace in the world and in our lives.

Remember, too, however, that when his disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, he teaches them these words: “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Jesus wasn’t messing around, and neither should we. Clearly God expects us, if we seek forgiveness, to extend it to others as well.

Most likely none of us reading this article will ever fall from quite the same unique and very public heights as has Marion Jones. I said earlier that it would be good practice to forgive her. Why? Because that would actually be much easier than forgiving your roommate, or lab partner, or best friend or colleague or spouse who has truly cut you to the quick.

So start with Marion, and move on to forgiving those closer and closer to your heart. For whenever we have the courage to apologize for one of the mistakes we have made or will make in our universally imperfect lives, won’t we hope to be forgiven?

Kate Barrett is the director of resources and special projects at Campus Ministry. She can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.