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Ottey still fired by passion

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Katharine Merry | 12:00 UK time, Friday, 30 July 2010

What are most 50-year-olds doing right now? They are working hard towards retirement, enjoying time with grandchildren and hopefully enjoying life's little luxuries every now and again.

The usual picture can not be painted for Merlene Ottey, the athletic legend who turned 50 in May.

Out here in Barcelona I have been interviewing many people: the stars of the Championships, an occasional exciting new star or Britain's next medal shot.

But when I was asked to go and interview the ageless Ottey I was delighted.

She is currently a member of the Slovenian 4x100 relay team, but also the most bemedalled major-championships performer of all time.

She has 27 of them - nine Olympic medals, three world golds she is still the third fastest woman over 200m of all time.

I arrived at her team hotel wondering if she would remember me. We both won medals at Sydney 2000 - I had just turned 26 and she was 40.

She used to train with my coach Linford Christie, who is also 50. He is not pinning on a number to race here in Barcelona, though. He's coaching the likes of medalist Mark Lewis-Francis.

Also there is the small fact that Linford can't sprint further than 10 metres now - his words not mine!

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There she was sitting in reception, one of the best athletes the world has ever seen, flicking through today's programme for the Championships, looking exactly like she did 20 years ago.

We set up for the interview - she did remember me - and I started with the question that she must have been getting asked for at least the last 15 years: Why are you still competing?

Why at 50 years old are you still running and on the verge of breaking another record by becoming the oldest ever competitor at the European Championships?

Passion is the reason and I got a sense of 'because I can'. What struck me as we chatted was how her mood would change depending on the question, in a very subtle way.

She waxed lyrical about her many medals - not in a big-headed way - but then would show frustration at missing that elusive Olympic gold, despite competing in seven Games, beginning in Moscow in 1980, when she won 200m bronze for Jamaica as a fresh-faced 20-year-old.

The frustration was cut deeper by the fact that she had missed out on a few individual golds through the smallest of margins.

The two she said hurt the most? The 1996 Atlanta Olympic 100m final, losing to Gail Devers by 0.005 sec and the Stuggart World Championships in 1993, when Devers also beat her over 100m.

She was relaxed but guarded, citing the fact she had a Slovenian coach as the reason why - after so much success and adoration in Jamaica - she became naturalised Slovenian in 2002.

She spoke with passion and excitement about the dominance of Jamaican sprinting now, clearly aware of the big part she played in its rise.

When I told what Usain Bolt told me two weeks ago in Paris, that he didn't consider himself a legend yet like her, she was touched.

The most frustration appeared in her wrinkle-free eyes when speaking of the current women's 100m world record.

Did she ever in her career think she could challenge the 10.49 second mark set by Florence Griffth-Joyner in 1988?

Hang on, I'd hit a nerve!

It was a windy race and should never have been rewarded, is a shorter version of a passionate answer.

So Flo Jo should not be the women's 100m world record holder?

"No".

After the interview ended, I sat and thought about the person I had properly met for the first time.

She was understandably angry about unobtainable records, frustrated at missing the Olympic gold she so desired by the thickness of a hair, yet still very much in love with a sport she adores.

Why else at 50 would you still train and attend championships running a second slower than at your peak? I get the feeling that athletics is and always will be her life, and she has sacrificed many things for it.

For me it has meant that when I watch her run on the final leg for Slovenia here in Barcelona on Saturday, I will have an even higher admiration for as athletics legend.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Nice blog Katharine.

    Only a very select few people ever deserve to be called legends, especially when still competing, Merlene is definitely one though.
    I hope she performs well and wins another medal, however unlikely this may be, as she is undoubtely the best advert there is for keeping fit into middle age, as well as being a role model to a great many athletes over her career.

  • Comment number 2.

    The fact that Merlene Ottey is now running for Slovenia! shows what a farce any sort of medal table is at these events. That said, well done to the English (Somalian) gold medalist!

  • Comment number 3.

    Can you please confirm whether you meant 'illusive' or 'elusive'?

  • Comment number 4.

    I hope I'm only a second slower than my peak when I reach 50.

  • Comment number 5.

    I recall even now with faded incredulity the moment when the race officials found in favour of Gail Devers for that 100m Olympic gold. I thought it was wrong then, and I still do today, having watched the action countless times.
    My conclusion, I'm afraid to say, was that Ottey was done out of a deserved share of the gold, a result that may well have eventuated had those games been held away from the US.
    That official verdict must still be a source of pain for the Jamaican.

  • Comment number 6.

    1999 Merlene was suspended for a positive drugs test. Yes I know the arbitration Panel decided that there were no grounds and lifted the ban, but frankly a lot of athletes were getting let off back then. I'm not saying Merlene was guilty, I don't know, but I can't bring myself to admire Merlene as a "legend".

  • Comment number 7.

    I wish she was doing what Linford is and investing her knowledge and willpower into a younger athlete. Yes, everyone has the right to do what they want, but having a 50 year old Jamaican representing Slovenia (and whatever she says, I think we can all guess which female sprint team its easier to get on), isn't progressive for the sport, or really for Merlene herself who seems driven mainly by bitterness.

  • Comment number 8.

    Merlene Ottey will alway's be a icon in jamaica no matter what, she is the best of all time. yes she is a naturalised Slovenian but jamaica is were her heart is everyday, she know were she learn her trad and that's in jamaica the sprinting capital of the world. (JAMAICA and Merlene) to di world.

  • Comment number 9.

    Wow she is incredible.

    I personally loved watching Marlene in the 1990s and even switched on just to see her. Of course she is still a fine looking woman but in the 1990s I also thought she was the best looking sportswoman in The World. Ok today I realise that is a bit shallow but I still have a lot of respect for her.

  • Comment number 10.

    Ottey is from that generation of infamous drug cheats. In her heydays, she had a long slender and sculpted body. I thought she was on drugs. But I since changed my mind because many of her compatriots, especially Florence Griffith-Joyner, who died at the age of 39 while Ottey is alive and still kicking and duking it out against competitors young enough to be her grand children. Drugs provide instant short term benefits negated by long term deterioration of the body. No drug user can have the sort of longevity Otti has and she looks 20 years younger. It is in her genes, attitude and outlook of life.
    Kudos to Ottey, who has an eviable passion for her sport. I know I hanged my soccer cletes when I turned 35: a sport that afforded me good health and ever-sculpted body, which has since deserted me. Every time I try hard to get back in shape, I lose enthusiasm despite knowing fully well the benefits I will forfeit. It takes a special person to be consistently motivated to do the same thing over and over again. It is mind-boggling. My hats off to Ottey. I hope she races at the age of 60 and older. She is an inspiration.

  • Comment number 11.

    Im already more than a second slower than I was when I was 20...and Im only 32!!!

  • Comment number 12.

    The fact that Merlene Ottey is now running for Slovenia! shows what a farce any sort of medal table is at these events. That said, well done to the English (Somalian) gold medalist!

    -------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Mo Farah may have been born in Somalia, but he has been in the UK for a long time and has grown up and trained here. So why make a snide comment about him? Especially considering the fact that he arrived here as a refugee. He didn't exactly come to the UK by choice. Why shouldn't a person who came here in terrible circumstances grow up and want to represent the country who gave him and his family help when they needed it?

  • Comment number 13.

    @3 it is obviously meant to be elusive, as in extremely difficult to achieve. Illusive, as in having the nature of an illusion would make no sense (unless your comment is meant to be some witty play on her believing she'd won at Atlanta).

    @12 I totally agree. Mo Farah arrived in the UK aged 8 via Djibouti, having left Somalia due to the civil war. His father was born in Britain and Mo was allowed entry because of his father's long-term residence in the UK. Fortunately for him (and UK athletics now as it happens) his family were relatively well off and he managed to escape to Djibouti as a young child. So he has spent most of his life in the UK, has a British father and was escaping from Somalia (where he lived for only his very youthful years). Further he was introduced to athletics in the UK by his PE teacher at Feltham Community college. So JamTay1 you really need to think about your examples before you make cheap digs. I find the Qatari recruitment much more worrying (e.g. Said Saif Asaad/Angel Popov and Saif Saaeed Shaheen/Stephen Cherono, though at least he was banned from the 2004 Olympics), though that's a discussion for another time.

  • Comment number 14.

    Mo Farah may have been born in Somalia, but he has been in the UK for a long time and has grown up and trained here. So why make a snide comment about him? Especially considering the fact that he arrived here as a refugee. He didn't exactly come to the UK by choice. Why shouldn't a person who came here in terrible circumstances grow up and want to represent the country who gave him and his family help when they needed it?


    -----------------------------------------------------------------------

    What a ridiculous comment - of course he came to the UK through choice...

    Great achievement though............ British athletics has relied on imported talent for many years now...

  • Comment number 15.

    Merlene has always inspired. I was lucky enough to see her in Atlanta when she clocked the same time as the winner Gail Devers and still ended up second - she smiled as she accepted her medal. I also witnessed the magical events that happened in Barcelona, like Christie's 100m gold or Derek Redmond's die-hard determination in the 400m - competing at 50 Merlene's just added to the Barcelona magic.

  • Comment number 16.

    Re Mo Farah, jagecosse wrote:
    "What a ridiculous comment - of course he came to the UK through choice...

    Great achievement though............ British athletics has relied on imported talent for many years now..."

    8-year olds don't choose. Their parents generally choose.
    As regards who is British, and "imported talent", I think you'll find that most of those who were born in Britain have foreign ancestry somewhere down the line.

    Back on the subject of Merlene Ottey, a great athlete, I think she comes second out of the two all time greatest female 100 metre sprinters. The other, and top of the list, is Christine Arron, who can be considered well and truly hard done by and who should be rightly regarded the real World Record holder.

  • Comment number 17.

    As predicted Merlene and her team did not qualify for the 4 x 100 final tomorrow. Going out in the heats.
    But she still blended in just nicely at 50 years old with the other final leg runners this morning! She looked in superb shape and made me feel very unfit!

    I caught up with the after and she said she had enjoyed returning to the Olympic Stadium where she won bronze in 1992 over the 200m, but confirmed when I asked.....that London 2012 is not in her plans!
    Well, they would be in her plans, but as a team the Solvenians just aren't strong enough.

    Many British supporters were very excited on the way into the stadium this morning at the chance to see her run and in no way shape or form at 50, did she disappoint.

  • Comment number 18.

    There is a big difference between someone who is already a sportsman/woman and migrates between flags (eg Zola Budd) and a child migrant who later becomes a sportsman/woman like Mo Farah.

    If sporting flags were restricted to place of birth, I can immediately think of a couple of England cricket captains who wouldn't have passed the test: Ted Dexter (Milan) and Colin Cowdrey (Bangalore). But I don't recall anyone sneering that they were 'really' Italian and Indian.

  • Comment number 19.

    I'm not sure why we have Katherine Merry on the BBC with her own blog - she was only in the sport for a few minutes before she retired. I'm sure we have more qualified people available !

  • Comment number 20.

    @19 Why has Katherine Merry got her own blog? A few minutes? Do you realise that she was in the sport right from her early days winning English Schools 100 metres title for one. She had a fantastic record as a junior and in 2001 was the world no1 in the 400 metres. I have followed her for years and if not for a few injuries I reckon she would have been the UK record holder for every distance up to 400 metres. C'mon get real, she is the real deal!

  • Comment number 21.

    icebloo
    need to swot up on the facts here mate! check out her wiki page!
    merry was top of the uk rankings aged 12 at 7 events, and still has the uk under 13 record at high jump @ 1.69 metres. she had a record gb junior career of 6 years (starting at 13 years old) including a total of 5 world/european junior champs winning 5 medals. she also ran 7.35 seconds for the 60m at 14! she won in her career the 100,200 and 400m at the uk champs and still holds the uk record indoors over 200m. add that to an individual olympic sprint medal and being the fastest woman in the world over 400m in 2001 running the 2nd fastest by a british woman ever of 49.59s (only behind kathy cooke).......say no more!
    no one else has that career record in uk athletics.
    there should have been more medals but for injuries.
    but a bit longer than 5 minutes mate!

  • Comment number 22.

    Hello Katharine,

    Well she's nowhere near 50 yet, but I feel that someone in the BBC should be congratulating Paula Radcliffe on the birth of her second child, Raphael... excellent news!

 

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