Evergreen Merlene Ottey shines in Sydney
Despite having turned 40, Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey picked up two medals at Sydney 2000 to take her collection to nine in an Olympic career that ultimately spanned seven editions of the Games, a track and field record.
Sydney 2000 was the sixth Games of Merlene Ottey’s remarkable Olympic career. It had begun 20 years earlier at Moscow 1980, where the pioneer of Jamaican women’s sprinting placed third in the 200m final behind East Germany’s Bärbel Wockel and the Soviet Union’s Natalya Bochina. In doing so she became the first female Jamaican athlete to climb on to an Olympic podium.
She added two more bronze medals at Los Angeles 1984, finishing third behind US duo Evelyn Ashford and Alice Brown in the 100m, before coming in behind two more Americans, Valerie Brisco-Hooks and Florence Griffith, in the 200m.
After leaving Seoul 1988 empty-handed, Ottey was back among the medals at Barcelona 1992, landing another 200m bronze. Then came the most agonising moment of her Olympic career, in the 100m final at Atlanta 1996, where the USA’s Gail Devers pipped her to gold by a mere five thousandths of a second in a photo finish.
The Jamaican suffered yet more frustration in the 200m, with France’s Marie-José Pérec narrowly denying her the gold in another thrilling finish. A measure of consolation came Ottey’s way when she collected a bronze in the 4x100m relay.
In the meantime, the insatiable Jamaican had been racking up a staggering 14 IAAF World Championship medals, the first of them coming at the inaugural competition in Helsinki in 1983 and the last in Athens in 1997. That collection, a competition record for either sex, includes gold medals in the 4x100m relay at Tokyo 1991 and in the 200m at Stuttgart 1993 and Gothenburg 1995.
Another Olympic landmark
Ottey’s eighth visit to an Olympic podium came in the 100m at Sydney 2000. Despite finishing the race fourth, just 0.01 seconds behind her compatriot Tayna Lawrence, she eventually collected bronze number six following the disqualification of the winner for doping.
The ninth and final medal of Ottey’s Games career came in the 4x100m relay a few days later. Running the anchor leg in a Jamaican quartet also featuring Lawrence, Veronica Campbell-Brown and Beverly McDonald, she stopped the clock at 42:13 to clinch silver ahead of the USA and behind the Bahamas, who led from start to finish. Her medal tally is a record in women’s sprinting.
“When I arrived at 30 everybody thought I was old,” she said back in 2010. “I can’t imagine what they’re thinking now. When I got to 40, I was like: ‘OK. I want to see what I can do at 40’. Nobody tried to make a huge theme. Then I got to 45, and here I am at 50 wanting to see how fast I can run. So this is what motivates me. When I get to 60 I want to see what I can run also.”
Sydney was not Ottey’s last outing on the Olympic stage, however. Having earlier moved to Slovenia, the great sprinter decided in 2002 to take out Slovenian nationality. Two years later, by this time aged 44, she represented her adopted country in the 100m and 200m in Athens, reaching the semi-finals in both events. In doing so, she became the only track and field athlete, male or female, to compete in seven Olympic Games.
The indefatigable Ottey has kept on running and running ever since, turning out for Slovenia again at the 2007 World Championship in Osaka, at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona – by which time she had blown out the candles on her 50th birthday cake – and forming part of the country’s 4x100m relay team at the 2012 Europeans in Helsinki.
Reflecting on the highs and lows of her remarkable career, she said: “Any regrets? Well, I can say I regret not winning the gold medal. It is sad that I didn’t win it but I’ve achieved a lot in sports. It’s only a pity that I don’t have a gold medal to go with my collection.”