Athletics: Bridesmaid revisited

The fond farewell: The world's greatest runner-up makes her final British appearance this afternoon. Norman Fox reports
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Year in year out she has topped the bill all over the world. She never looks a day older and is born star material. Yet after the best part of 20 years she has never been presented with the ultimate golden disc. Merlene Ottey is going into her final season as the world's most successful and popular female athlete but still without an Olympic gold medal.

Today she is scheduled to make her farewell appearance in Britain at the Bupa Games/Ricoh meeting at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham. Last summer at the age of 36 and encouraged by that far from retiring golden oldie, Linford Christie, she again defied the years by reaching the Olympic 100 and 200 metres finals in Atlanta. Again she saw the gold medals snatched away - this time by Gail Devers, by a fraction, and Marie- Jose Perec, by a stride. The compensation was that her total of medals in Olympic competition rose to seven and her major championship medals to 34.

Ironically, her final Olympic medal, a bronze in the 4x100m relay, was won in pursuit of an American team anchored by her American rival Gwen Torrence. To say "bitter rival" would be to understate the intensity of Ottey's dislike of Torrence who has been known to make some wild accusations about the people who finish ahead of her.

Ottey has been world 200m champion twice and Commonwealth champion three times. Nobody has more world championship, medals but when it comes to the Olympics she has a logic-defying knack of being too good after the event, resulting in her fellow travellers on the grand prix circuit calling her the "Bronze Queen". After last summer's Olympics she went to the grand prix final and, typically, beat Devers over 100m.

Even if Olympic gold has been elusive, her record is unlikely to be equalled. It contains two of the most remarkable sequences in athletics history. Between the end of August 1987 and August 1991, she was unbeaten in 57 races over 100m, and between May 1987 and March 1991 she won 73 consecutive races over a variety of distances. She has also ranked in the world's top 10 for 16 years.

To describe her as the unluckiest woman athlete is at once absurd yet true. Her Atlanta defeat by Devers was not the first but was again controversial. She seemed to have won the 1993 world championships 100m final, but Devers was given the title by one-thousandth of a second. At the last Olympics the margin was again not something the human eye could see. "I was thankful to get the silver," she said, as she did when she was second in her stronger race, the 200m. She had been leading for for all but the last 25 metres.

Although she left her home country as a teenager and went to university in the United States, then moved on to Italy and is now based in Monte Carlo, Ottey had her achievements recognised when Jamaica appointed her an official roving ambassador four years ago. It is a role she finds no problem fulfilling as she has never been short of invitations not merely to run but be seen at receptions, all over the world. Curiously, though, she dislikes flying and admits to being petrified of turbulence.

Despite the leak from a well-meaning Jamaican government official last October that Ottey was going to retire and concentrate on fashion design, a victory over Devers in Milan soon after the Olympics persuaded Ottey to keep going at least until this summer's World Championships. Even so, sooner or later she is likely to go into the rag trade already rich - and she did always want to be a model.

Although the reigning indoor world champion is unlikely to have a British challenger in today's 60m, the equivalent race for men is expected to reflect the growing depth of talent following in the tracks of Christie. The field is probably the strongest ever assembled at an indoor meeting in Britain, with Jason Livingston facing the world indoor champion Bruny Surin, the double Olympic bronze medal winner Ato Boldon, of Trinidad, two experienced Americans in Jon Drummond and Dennis Mitchell as well as Michael Green, of Jamaica and Davidson Ezinwa, of Nigeria.

Jamie Baulch, who has beaten the world indoor champion Darnell Hall twice already this season, is favourite for the 400m both this weekend and at the world indoor championships in Paris next month. Whatever the problems behind the scenes, at least Britain's young athletes are pulling their weight in an effort to keep the sport interesting.

Ashia Hansen, who narrowly missed an Olympic triple-jump medal, will be making her first appearance in Britain this year following intensive training in South Africa and two victories on the Continent.

The almost golden years of Merlene Ottey

1980: Olympic bronze (200m). At 20, creates instant impression in Moscow by beating eventual gold medallist, Barbel Wockel, in heats.

1982: Commonwealth Games gold (200m). Appears in three finals in Brisbane, also taking silver in 100m and bronze in relay.

1983: World Championship silver (200m), bronze (relay). Beaten in the final only by formidable Marita Koch. Also fourth in 100m.

1984: Olympic Games bronze (100m, 200m). Unable to cope with Evelyn Ashford or Valerie Brisco-Hooks on home ground in Los Angeles.

1987: Overall grand prix winner. World Championship bronze (100m, 200m). Consistency brings success throughout Europe, but in Rome loses out to East Germany's system-built Silke Gladisch.

1989: World Indoor Championship gold (200m). Victory after injury at Seoul Olympics set up an unbeaten run extending nearly two years.

1990: Overall grand prix champion. Commonwealth Games gold (100m, 200m). Dominating sprinting scene. Inevitable double gold in Auckland.

1991: World Championship gold (relay), bronze (100m, 200m). World Indoor Championship gold (200m). Gaining reputation for missing out on big day.

1992: Olympic Games bronze (200m). At her peak yet beaten not only by American Gwen Torrence but by her team-mate Juliet Cuthbert. Fifth in 100m.

1993: World Championship gold (200m), silver (100m), bronze (relay). Gold at last with victory over Torrence and in 100m beaten by only 0.001sec by Gail Devers.

1994: World Cup gold (200m): Victory on debut in the competition.

1995: World Championship gold (200m), silver (100m and relay). Retained title only after Torrence was disqualified. At 35, oldest ever female world champion.

1996: Olympic Games silver (100m, 200m). Pipped by Devers in photo finish in 100m, and by Marie-Jose Perec in the 200m. Confessed her chance of Olympic gold had gone forever.