The great Olympian dame has Mount Everest to climb

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It has taken all of 28 years but time, it seems, is finally starting to catch up with the grand dame of the sprint world. It was in Moscow in July 1980 that Merlene Ottey first showed her fleetness of foot on the Olympic stage as a fresh-faced 20-year-old running for her native Jamaica. She won a bronze medal in the 200m, behind Barbel Wockel of East Germany and Natalya Bochina of the Soviet Union. At every Olympic Games since then, she has been a fixture in the fast lane, clocking up a record seven appearances and gathering a record eight medals along the way.

Whether she can make it to Beijing remains to be seen. With less than a month to go now before the final entries are confirmed, the adopted Slovenian is struggling to achieve the 100m qualifying time. The B standard is 11.42sec and Ottey's best time so far this summer is a modest 11.92sec.

At 48, the woman who turned the sprint into a marathon would appear to be in danger of reaching the finish line – as an Olympian, at least. "I have Mount Everest to climb in achieving the qualifying standard," she conceded, "but then all things are possible."

Ottey has defied the odds before. Last year she was plagued by allergic problems affecting her immune system and severely disrupting her training, yet she still qualified for the European Indoor Championships in Birmingham – she missed out on the 60m semi-finals by a mere 0.02sec – and the World Championships in Osaka – she finished fourth in a first-round 100m heat in 11.64sec. Her best 100m time in 2007 was 11.56sec.

She has been afflicted by illness again this summer. Her fastest time came at a meeting in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, on 1 June and she has until 23 July to make the necessary half-a-second improvement.

Her Olympic odyssey has already been a truly amazing journey, taking her from the era of East German domination of the women's sprints to those of Florence Griffith-Joyner, Marion Jones and beyond.

Her first Olympic race was a 200m heat in Moscow on 28 July 1980 – two days after Steve Ovett had beaten Sebastian Coe in the 800m final in the Lenin Stadium and four days before their epic rematch in the 1500m final. Ottey won, ahead of Kathy Cook, or Kathy Smallwood, as she was at the time.

"I'm the same age as Merlene," the long-retired Cook said. "I tell my kids that whenever I see her running on television. I just don't know how she's kept going, especially at that level. She's absolutely amazing."

And yet Ottey has never quite managed to claim an Olympic gold to match her World Championship 200m crowns of 1993 and 1995. She could hardly have come closer, having lost a photo-finish verdict to Gail Devers in the 100m final in Atlanta in 1996. Her most recent Olympic medal was won in Sydney in 2000, after her reinstatement by the International Association of Athletics Federations following a positive test for nandrolone. That was a silver in the 4 x 100m relay for Jamaica, although a ninth medal could yet belatedly come her way – courtesy of Marion Jones' retrospective disqualification as winner of the 100m final in Sydney.

The International Olympic Committee have yet to revise the other positions from that race, with Katerina Thanou, the Greek who served a suspension for missing three drugs tests on the eve of the Athens Games, standing to gain promotion to the gold spot. Ottey, who finished fourth, would be upgraded. So there could yet be an Olympic bronze for the 48-year-old speed merchant, even if she can't quite crank herself into the reckoning for Beijing.