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Merlene Ottey - no longer going for gold?
By Agostinho Pinnock
Monday, August 23, 2004

Ottey has gained 14 medals from six Olympics and four World Championships

Eight-time Olympic medallist and runner, Merlene Ottey, obviously is a winner but at 44 years and making her seventh Olympic appearance she is admitting that winning no longer is her goal.

"I have this passion for the sport and I am not necessarily looking to win but to just enjoy myself," she told journalists at the Olympics in Athens, Greece last week.
Apart from living her passion, Ottey, like many others, also wants to see how well she can run at her age.
"My aim is to do better than just qualify (for the finals)," she said last week.
Ottey, who has gained 14 medals from six Olympics and four World Championships, said that she was looking forward to competing with athletes many times her junior.

Merlene Ottey competing in Athens (Photos: Brian Cummings)

Born in Pondside, Hanover in 1960, Ottey has won many medals in major international competitions for Jamaica; including a record eight at the Olympics, and six in the World Championships. A former student of Ruseas and Vere Technical High schools, Ottey first represented Jamaica at the US-boycotted 1980 Olympics Games in Moscow. Though new to the international sprint scene, the twenty-year old Ottey placed third in the 200 metres.
She confessed that she had drawn her early inspiration from the news of fellow countryman Donald Quarrie's gold medal winning efforts, in the 1976 Montreal Games over the same distance. Ottey listened to this historic event on her transistor radio at her home in the country.

She was later to become one of Jamaica's most acclaimed Jamaican sprinters who, though she has never won an Olympic gold, has been one of our most formidable athletes at these games.
Since her first Olympics, Ottey has won seven other medals at four Olympic Games - a silver and bronze in the shorter sprint; a silver and two bronze medals in the 200 metres and a silver and bronze medal each in the four-by-one relays. In 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, Ottey failed to take home a medal, despite running a blistering 21.99 seconds in the 200 metres final. She placed fourth. She was solidly beaten by Florence Griffiths-Joyner of the US, who posted the phenomenal women's world record of 21.34 seconds.
Silver went to country woman Grace Jackson-Small in a fast 21.79 seconds.

This is Ottey's seventh Olympics

Arguably, the most difficult of Ottey's Olympic expeditions may be traced back to the twenty-seventh Olympiad in Sydney, Australia in 2000. The story, however, started a year earlier when the high-flying sprint queen was declared to have cheated by the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF). A urine sample submitted at an out-of-competition meet in Luzerne, Switzerland had returned positive for the banned anabolic steroid nandrolone. Her 'B' sample contained higher than normal levels of the substance. Ottey was deemed to have an unfair edge over the competition and subsequently banned by the IAAF. Jamaicans were shocked.

The embattled Ottey, however, fought to clear her name. Finally, redemption came in the summer of 2000. The IAAF dropped all charges against her. Jamaicans were elated. However, there was one other major hurdle Ottey had to cross in her bid for a fifth Olympic trip. She had to compete at the National Senior Trials prior to selection for the Olympics. She placed a disappointing fourth at the trials - prematurely ending her dream of competing in the finals of the hundred metres at her fifth Olympic Games. According to the rules of the Jamaica Amateur Athletics Association (JAAA) only athletes who had finished in the top three at the trials were eligible to run. Ottey could only run on the relay team. Ottey, however, was convinced in her decision that she be extended the courtesy the JAAA had done to others in the past. The situation had all the signs of impending trouble.

In the weeks prior to the Sydney, Ottey registered two sub-eleven seconds times in warm-up meets prior to the Games. She was the fastest of all the Jamaican female sprinters over the distance leading into the Olympics. The JAAA had the unenviable task of deciding which athlete would run at the Olympics, - one of the three women who had finished ahead of Ottey - Peta-Gaye Dowdie, Tanya Lawrence and Beverly MacDonald or Ottey. In the end, Ottey was given the green light over national champion, Dowdie, who it was later confirmed, was injured.

Many of Ottey's teammates objected to the JAAAs' decision. In their estimation, the veteran sprinter should have had the grace to step aside and allow younger talents to come forward. Quarter-miler Gregory Haughton, himself an Olympian and medallist at major championships, was reputed to have taken it upon himself to lead the notorious Games Village protests to oust Ottey, which made headlines worldwide. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) threatened to throw the Jamaicans out of the Games if the team managers were not able to control their charges. The protest ended immediately. It was agreed, Ottey would face the starters in the short sprint. Her teammates, reportedly, had made peace with the decision.
Despite being at the centre of a major row, Ottey ran her races smartly. In the first semi-finals, she ran a relatively fast 11.22 seconds to beat the Bahamian duo of Chandra Sturrup and Debbie Ferguson and the European pair of Christine Arron and Zhana Pintusevich. In the next semi-finals, US runner Marion Jones beat Ekatreni Thanou of Greece and Jamaican Tanya Lawrence. The race was faster than Ottey's semi-final.

In the finals, Jones dismissed all-comers in copping the title of Olympic champion. Thanou was second. Ottey and Lawrence dueled valiantly to the tape. Unfortunately for Ottey however, she was relegated to fourth spot. A mere one hundredth of a second separated the two Jamaicans. Though disappointed, Ottey congratulated Jones who registered 10.75 seconds for a memorable Olympic victory. Thanou stopped the clock in 11:12 seconds. Lawrence posted 11.18 seconds and Ottey was timed in 11.19 seconds.
Then came the women sprint relay finals. The Jamaican team comprised bronze medallist Lawrence, teenager and newcomer Veronica Campbell and curve specialist Beverly MacDonald. Ottey anchored. In the end, the Jamaicans took silver. They were beaten by Caribbean neighbours and long-time arch rivals, Bahamas. They finished ahead of the highly touted US team, anchored by a fast finishing Marion Jones.

Ottey's anchor leg and silver medal win in a team event was fitting deliverance from the tribulations which dogged her attendance at the Sydney games. The moment truly belonged to Ottey. It was her finest hour. She permanently etched her name in the record books by copping her eighth Olympic medal. Ottey is the only female sprinter to have achieved such a feat. But despite the fact that Ottey had brought glory to her country, the sting of the controversy had left a distinctly bitter aftertaste. The 'Sprint Queen' had, obviously, fallen from grace. Ottey was construed as a desperate and aging icon trying to retain power by any means necessary and was accused of usurping the place of younger and equally worthy athletes. Little wonder she requested to be released from representing Jamaica in order to run for Slovenia. That decision came in 2001.
Last week Ottey stressed that she still had no plans to retire and in fact was thinking of competing at 2006 European Championships. Many eagerly anticipate seeing her perform during these Olympics.

Agostinho Pinnock is a freelance writer.

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