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Known as “the Gazelle”, Marie-José Pérec was arguably France's highest profile athlete at Atlanta 1996. Four years earlier, she had won the 400m title in Barcelona in outstanding style. Now she was determined to make history not once but twice: by retaining the title and by completing an almost unprecedented 200m/400m sprint double.
Pérec had seen the USA’s Michael Johnson proclaim that he would attempt to win gold over the same distances in the men’s events, and she decided that she would follow suit. Her record over 200m was not particularly good, but her confidence was sky high.
Meanwhile, in the 400m, she now had a serious rival in the form of Australia's Cathy Freeman. Four years the Frenchwoman’s junior, Freeman had failed to make the final in Barcelona, but had since blossomed into an outstanding talent. In Atlanta, both athletes made the final with ease and ran the first 200m in impressive style, Pérec holding the lead alongside the Bahamas’ Pauline Davis, with Freeman just behind. As they ran the back bend, Pérec accelerated away from Davis but Freeman responded, closing the gap and pulling alongside the Frenchwoman as they entered the home straight. Now it was down to pure strength and stamina. Somehow, Pérec found a little extra as the line approached, and took victory, and the gold medal, by 0.38 seconds, setting a new Olympic record in the process.
A few days later came the toughest part of her challenge – the 200m. This time Pérec was not the favourite, for she was up against the formidable Jamaican Merlene Ottey. Even though she was now 36 years old, the reigning world champion showed no sign of slowing down. Her qualifying time for the final, 22.08 seconds, was almost identical time to that of Pérec, but it enabled her to make history as the first track athlete to reach the final of the same event five times.
Not that there was much time to dwell on records, as the final was held less than two hours later. The race appeared to be going to form, with Ottey leading as the field headed into the straight, with Pérec down in fifth after a poor start. However, just as in the 400m, she produced an impressive burst of strength, reeling in the field and passing Ottey with about 20m of the race left. She won by a metre, becoming only the second woman in history to win the 200m/400m double.
It was to prove the final major title of Pérec's career, but still goes down as one of the great performances seen on an Olympic track.