It was on 28 July 1980 that Merlene Ottey settled into her starting blocks in the Lenin Stadium for her first race in a major international athletics championship: heat six of the women's 200m at the Moscow Olympics. Margaret Thatcher was a year into her reign as the Prime Minister of Great Britain. Bjorn Borg was the Wimbledon tennis champion. Television viewers around the globe were gripped by the question of who had shot J R Ewing.
Ottey was 20 at the time and running for her native Jamaica. She won the race in 22.70 seconds. Thirty years on, and now a naturalised Slovenian, she is still going strong – if not quite so fast. Two months past her 50th birthday, she has been named in Slovenia's 4 x 100m relay squad for the European Championships, which run in Barcelona from Tuesday to Sunday next week.
Of the seven athletes selected for the British relay squad, only two were even alive when Ottey ran in those Olympics in Moscow, where she won bronze in the 200m – the first of a record nine track and field medals in a record seven Olympic appearances. Joice Maduaka was six. Katherine Endacott was six months old.
Ottey is one of five athletes vying for the four available slots in the Slovenian 4 x 100m team but would appear to be a nailed-on selection for the heats of the event on Saturday week – to be held in the Montjuïc Stadium, where she won a 200m bronze medal as a 32-year-old in the Barcelona Olympics of 1992.
Last weekend, the grande dame of the sprint game finished runner-up in the 100m final at the Slovenian Championships in Velenje, behind an athlete less than half her age, Sabina Veit, 24. Earlier last week, she broke the world over-50s' 100m record for the third time this summer, clocking 11.67 seconds at a Slovenian Athletics League meeting in Novo Mesto.
"People always say that after a certain age you cannot do certain things, so I set my own goals," Ottey said. "The most important motive is that I can still run – and still run fast." The longevity of Ottey's life in the fast lane has taken her from the era of East German domination in the women's sprints, through the advent of the trailblazing American Florence Griffith-Joyner, the fastest female of all time, and the rise and fall of Marion Jones and beyond. Last December, she was awarded her ninth Olympic medal because Jones's admission that she had been using anabolic steroids when she won the 100m at the 2000 Games in Sydney raised Ottey from fourth to third in the revised result.
Ottey herself fell foul of the drug testers back in 1999, when excessive amounts of nandrolone were found in her system, but she subsequently had a ban from competition overturned by the governing body of track and field, the International Association of Athletics Federation. "I have been through many ups and downs in my career and I have always been strong enough to come back," she said.
The question now is: how long can she keep going? Next week, she stands to match Stanley Matthews, who played top-division football for Stoke City as a 50-year-old. The American golfer Tom Watson was 59 when he came within one putt of winning the British Open title last year. The Swede Oscar Swahn was 64 when he became an Olympic champion, winning the 100m running double shot at the Stockholm Games in 1912.
"I actually thought about stopping after the 1984 Olympics and again in 1988," Ottey said. "I kept on running my best, so I thought, 'Why stop?'"Reuse content