Merlene Ottey is set for fifth Olympic Games

Greatest Female Olympic athlete Merlene Ottey is set for fifth Olympic Games

Tuesday 17 August 2004

Athens - When Merlene Ottey surprised everyone by emerging as a medal contender for Jamaica at the Moscow Olympics back in 1980 no one could have imagined that 24 years later she would still be an Olympic sprinter – and still be surprising everyone with her performances, including herself.

The surprise is not merely that Ottey is still competing at her seventh Olympic Games, this time for Slovenia, but, at 44, that she is still fit and quick enough to be a serious contender, for a place, at least, in the 100m final. Ottey’s results this year – not least her recent 11.09 – have sent gasps of astonishment around the athletics world and re-written the veterans’ record books.

“My target this year was to get to my seventh Olympics,” she says. “I believed I could do it if I stayed healthy, and then my goal was not to run just one race here. It seems from recent results that I can get to the semi-finals now, and maybe better.”

Not that she is putting any pressure on herself – Christine Arron, Veronica Campbell and LaTasha Colander are her tips for the medals. Indeed, Ottey admits she is enjoying the fact that these are the first Games since her Olympic debut when she doesn’t have to bear the pressure of being a medal favourite.

“I didn’t expect to do fantastically well in Moscow, I remember, and here I feel the same,” she says. “I don’t have the pressure to win. It’s a huge surprise that I’m still running at this age, to be honest. I never thought I’d be in the sport so long and be competing so long.

“What keeps me going? I just enjoy it. It’s got to the point where if I don’t run I don’t feel good. I’ve got a passion for the sport. And I was curious to see how fast I could run at the age of 44.”

It was that same sense of curiosity that aroused Ottey’s desire to become an Olympic athlete in the first place, some 28 years ago.

“I remember the first time I heard of the Olympics was in 1976,” she says. “Everyone in Jamaica was listening to it on the radio because we had this sprinter called Don Quarrie going for a gold medal. I wanted to know what this thing the Olympics was, and I said then my goal was to be in the next one. I thought, ‘If they make such a fuss about one athlete, I definitely want to be there.’”

Four years later the “fuss” was about Ottey as the raw 20 year-old took bronze in the 200m finishing just one hundredth of a second behind Natalya Bochina of the Soviet Union, in a race won by GDR’s Barbel Wockel. With Evelyn Ashford out of the running due to the USA’s boycott, athletes from Eastern Europe had been expected to take all the medals.

“All I can remember is hearing the Jamaicans shouting ‘lean, lean, lean’,” says Ottey of that inaugural final. It wasn’t the last time she was to be denied a higher medal in a desperately close finish. Having taken a 200m bronze in LA in 1984, when she was expected to win gold, Ottey was inched out of the medals altogether in Seoul eight years later by Heike Drechsler and so became the first athlete to finish fourth while dipping under 22 seconds (21.99).

She was at her peak in the early 1990s and, at 32, was again expected to medal highly in both the sprints in Barcelona. Again it wasn’t to be. She clocked 10.88 in the 100m final and yet could only finish fifth in a race won by USA’s Gail Devers, before claiming her third bronze in four Games in the 200m.

The Atlanta Games were even more agonising as Ottey, now 36, lost the 100m gold to Devers by just five thousandths of a second and then was overhauled by Marie-Jose Perec in the final strides of the 200m. Devers had denied Ottey by an even smaller margin (one thousandth) at the previous year’s World Championships and it is partly because of those two epic duels that Ottey names the American sprint hurdler as her greatest opponent over the years.

“Devers has to be the one,” she says. “Because I was always losing to her in a photo finish.” It will be fascinating to see if the two are drawn together when the 100m starts on Friday.

Ottey’s record-breaking eighth Olympic medal came four years ago when Jamaica took silver in the 4x100m behind the golden girls of the Bahamas. Sydney was not Ottey’s most enjoyable Games experience, however. Not only did she again finish fourth in the 100m, denied of a medal by another slim margin (a hundredth of a second), but her selection for the event caused such controversy in the Jamaican team that relations between her and the federation were soured.

“It was a shock,” says Ottey. “I felt betrayed at the time, but now all that’s changed and we are friends again. I still have tons of fans and friends and relatives in Jamaica and it will always be a special place for me.”

Ottey had moved to Slovenia to train with her coach, Srdjan Djordjevic, in 1998, and later took the simple decision to compete for her new country. “I wanted to compete in international competitions if I could and I am glad Slovenia has given me the opportunity,” she says. “I was living in Slovenia, training there and I needed a country. It was the easiest choice for me. I don’t think I would still be in the sport otherwise.

“The people at home thought I was crazy. They had heard there were bombs going off. But I wasn’t going to take anyone else’s opinion, I wanted to see for myself, and when I got there I thought it was fantastic. It’s a great place to live.”

According to statistician Mark Butler, Ottey’s Olympic record of three silvers, five bronzes, two fourths, one fifth, one sixth and one eighth place make her the greatest female Olympic track and field athlete of all time, ahead on points even of Fanny Blankers-Koen, Irena Szewinska, Shirley Strickland and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, despite never becoming an Olympic champion.

She is already the oldest Olympic athletics medallist, and if she reaches the semis here in Athens will contest her 50th Olympic race. As for whether she can go further, coach Djordjevic is warning us not to expect “miracles”. “It’s a fantastic achievement that she can run faster than 11.10,” he says.

Indeed, if she can keep that sort of form, Ottey could even be a medal contender at the European Championships in 2006, a meeting she intends to enter “if I am still running”. And what of Beijing? “I have been asked whether this will be my last Olympics ever since Barcelona,” she says. “I used to keep saying ‘yes’, or ‘maybe’. This time I have no idea.”

At some point, inevitably, age will catch up with Merlene Ottey and she will retire from the running track to pursue her fashion line and a form of physiotherapy known as TMG. Until then, we have at least one more chance to enjoy one of the greats of the Games.

Matthew Brown for the IAAF

Great info…what a gal…


1 1187 NESTERENKO Yuliya BLR 15 JUN 1979 3 0.240 10.94 Q NR
2 3016 OTTEY Merlene SLO 10 MAY 1960 4 0.195 11.14 Q
3 2902 KRUGLOVA Larisa RUS 27 OCT 1972 2 0.207 11.23 Q =PB
4 3383 KHUBBIEVA Guzel UZB 02 MAY 1976 6 0.153 11.31
5 1266 AL GASSRA Rakia BRN 06 SEP 1982 5 0.250 11.49 NR
6 3405 DUBE Winneth ZIM 10 MAY 1972 7 0.211 11.56
7 1783 IKELAP Evangeleen FSM 18 JAN 1982 1 0.221 13.50 =PB
8 2408 AL NASRALLAH Danah KUW 07 MAR 1988 8 13.92 NR

Look at the DOB’s!

She’s a legend