Athletics: Ottey the Lion Queen who roared

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MERLENE OTTEY has been one of track and field's most esteemed and accomplished athletes for two decades, winning medals and prestige with her astonishing performances.

Two years ago, she said, "Sometimes I just see my life as a miracle. I'll have to see if this miracle continues."

The 39-year-old Jamaican's miracle seemed to have come to an end yesterday, three days before the World Championships begin, after she tested positive for the banned substance nandrolone.

The poised, elegant and graceful Ottey built her reputation on a series of strong finishes in major championships - she collected a total of 34 medals in those elite races - and long winning streaks that made her easily the best women's sprinter of the 1990s. She is the most successful athlete in the history of the World Championships, having won 14 medals, including six golds.

"I have done a lot of track and field," she said in 1997. "Even if I have to retire tomorrow, I'll still feel good. I am content, and anything that I now achieve is just extra. I am very satisfied. I have had a very long career, and very successful."

She became known as the "Lion Queen" for the arrogant stroll she took after a false start in the 1997 world 100 metres final when she kept the other seven athletes waiting for her to return to the blocks.

Ottey, the oldest sprinter still competing at the top level, had not given any indication when she would retire. She still was anxiously seeking the one medal that had eluded her over her long and distinguished career - an Olympic gold.

It did not matter that she had helped the Jamaican 400 metres relay team finish third at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the first track and field medal for the country's women at a Summer Games. It did not matter that she had become Jamaica's first woman to win an individual track and field medal at the Olympics, with bronzes in the 100m and 200m at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Gold had eluded her in an individual event at three World Outdoor Championships before winning the 200m in 1993 at Stuttgart after winner Gwen Torrence was disqualified for running out of her lane. That followed a heartbreaking .001sec defeat to Gail Devers in the 100m.

"When I overheard someone saying that I had the gold I couldn't breathe," Ottey said. "Then I saw on the replay [on the stadium scoreboard] that Gwen ran out of her lane and that was cheating and she was disqualified."

Despite her advancing years, Ottey wanted to prove that advancing years do not necessarily mean declining performances. Even as late as last year, at 38, she was ranked No 7 in the world in the 100, extending her record of being in the top 10 every year since 1980.

Every time she stepped onto the track, she was a presence, and she knew it.

"Even if I am not the best in the race or the best going into the competition, it's always my name that stands afraid of me and can't wait for me to retire." she said. "That's the way I feel."

Although Ottey was the best woman track and field performer produced in Jamaica, it was a sport she did not intend to pursue until 1976, when she watched on television as Jamaican Don Quarrie won the 200m at the Montreal Olympics.

"There was a big celebratory feast in our country," she said. "So I decided I would become like him. I was fast - I ran faster than the boys."

A year later, while training on her own, she won races with regularity. Track and field enabled her to leave her poor upbringing in Hanover, Jamaica, and travel the world, competing against the sport's best and winning with relentless consistency.

In recent years, Ottey also turned her attention to the fashion world, dabbling in modelling and fashion design. Even though she spent a lot of time away from her homeland, she was loved by Jamaicans. In 1993, Jamaica appointed her a roving ambassador, and 15 times between 1979 and 1997, she was the country's Sportswoman of the Year.

The Jamaican government said it is standing behind Ottey. Acting Prime Minister Seymour Mullings said he was saddened by news of the test but hoped fervently that a mistake had been made.

"Merlene asserts that she has always played by the rules," she said. "She is definitely the most outstanding female athlete that we have produced and after such an illustrious career, one would expect her to go out with honour." He said confirmation of a positive test would not affect her roving ambassadorial status.

Not long ago, she said. "I have no regrets. If I had won a gold at the Olympics, I would have given up long ago. Now, I'm still getting a lot of satisfaction from my sport."

That satisfaction is now over.

MERLENE OTTEY FACTFILE

Born: 10 May 1960, Cold Spring, Jamaica.

Graduated from Nebraska University.

Formerly married to American 400m hurdler Nat Page.

Now lives in Italy.

Competed at the 1980 Moscow Olympics and planned to run in the 2000 Sydney Games.

Won 34 medals in major international championships, including seven in the Olympics and a record 14 in world championships.

Compiled winning streaks of 57 finals in 100m and 36 finals in 200m before losing in both events at the 1991 world championships.

Run of 73 winning finals in all events between 21 April 1989 and 8 May 1991 when she was over 60m by Irina Privalova at the World Indoor Championships.

Won gold in a major championship for the first time when taking the 200m title at the 1993 Stuttgart world championships, having lost the 100m final by 0.001sec.

Retained the 200m title in Gothenburg two years later to become the oldest women's outdoor champion at the age of 35.

Designated a roving ambassador by the Jamaican government after the 1993 season.

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