The clock on the scoreboard was showing 10.45am when the eight teams lined up for heat one in the opening round of the women's 4 x 100m relay on day five of the European Championships yesterday. Looking down at the familiar figure limbering up in lane six at the head of the home straight, it was as though time had stood still for 18 years. She was wearing the sky blue vest of her adopted Slovenia rather than the yellow and green of her native Jamaica, but there was Merlene Ottey getting ready to rumble into sprinting action, just as she had done down the same stretch at the 1992 Olympic Games.
Back then, she was already regarded as something of a golden oldie – well, a bronzed Thirtysomething, at any rate. She finished third in the 200m final, aged 32.
Eighteen years on, two months past her 50th birthday, Ottey was making history yesterday as the oldest athlete ever to compete in the European Championships. She looked as lithesome as ever, little different even to when she ran her first major championship race. That was on 28 July 1980, in the first-round 200m heats at the Moscow Olympics, between the two epic middle-distance duels between Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe.
Ottey was 20 at the time. She won her heat and went on to take bronze in the final – the first of a record haul of nine track-and-field medals in a record seven Olympic appearances. Only one of her relay team-mates yesterday was even alive then, Kristina Zumer. She was six months old. At 30, she was the second eldest member of the Slovenian quartet ahead of Tina Murn, 27, and Sabina Veit, 24.
Zumer ran the third leg, passing the baton to Ottey, who might have set off down the home straight with a Zimmer frame, such is the state of her lower back after three decades of explosive sprinting. Five titanium screws hold her hamstring and gluteus together and this time last year she could only walk downstairs backwards because of an inflamed left knee. Her doctor told her to quit or risk ending up in a wheelchair.
"I thought that was it," Ottey confessed. "I thought I was going to have to give up." And yet here she was in the Montjuic Olympic arena, collecting the baton from Zumer and tearing off down the home straight as fast as her long legs could take her. Which was not as fast as they used to.
Ottey could not haul her battered, half-century-old body into a qualifying position. She took over in seventh place and stayed there. "I'm a bit disappointed," the grand dame of the sprint game said. "I was hoping that some others would make a mistake and we might get into the final.
"I only knew a couple of weeks ago that I'd definitely be here and I've only run 11.67sec for the 100m this year. I'm much slower than I was in Moscow 30 years ago. Still, it's great to have run here. I still enjoy it." What about the final finish line to her marathon life in the fast lane? "I'll complete this season, then start training again in November for next year," she said. "I am taking it one season at a time. But I don't see the end at the moment, no.
"Next year I'll try to qualify for the World Championships in South Korea. We'll see about the 2012 Olympics after that."