Perec prays for the Midas touch

Race of grace for golden gazelle

It was hardly surprising that Cathy Freeman found herself doing a double-take as she sprinted up the home straight at the Thames Valley Athletics Centre in the shadow of Eton College last Monday morning. After all, Donna Fraser, the athlete running in the lane alongside her, did once work as a body double for Marie-José Pérec on a Pirelli calendar photo shoot.

It was hardly surprising that Cathy Freeman found herself doing a double-take as she sprinted up the home straight at the Thames Valley Athletics Centre in the shadow of Eton College last Monday morning. After all, Donna Fraser, the athlete running in the lane alongside her, did once work as a body double for Marie-José Pérec on a Pirelli calendar photo shoot.

"It was so funny," Freeman mused as she lunched in central London later the same day. "I'm running around the track and these long legs are striding out alongside me. They're so similar, Donna and Marie-Jo. They've both got these legs like long black spiders."

It would be stretching the truth to claim that Freeman is suffering from an athletic form of arachniphobia as the Sydney Olympics loom. The favourite for the women's 400m needs no reminding, though, that Pérec's spider's legs devoured the opposition in the one-lap event in Barcelona in 1992 and in Atlanta four years ago - and that her one-time nemesis is back on the track looking to spin another golden web.

"I take her very seriously," Freeman said of the woman behind whom she finished in her very first Olympic race and in her most recent one, the first-round heats in Barcelona and the final in Atlanta. "She instils a little bit of... I don't know whether it's fear. But when she runs at her best she makes me go, 'Wow!' It's an intriguing story. I mean, here I am, twice World champion and unbeaten in however many races, and there's Pérec, coming back and going for a third Olympic 400m gold."

There's also Katharine Merry, the fast-emerging Birchfield Harrier who could provide a British sting in the tale of an event which, in the absence of Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene from the men's 200m cast, promises to take top billing in Sydney. Freeman will start in the lead role, as the gold-medal favourite expected to deliver on home soil. Winner of the world title in Athens in 1997 and in Seville last summer, she stretched her unbeaten run to a 34th 400m race with a comfortable victory in Oslo on Friday. When it comes to the Olympics, though, Pérec is the woman with the Midas touch.

In Atlanta, where she restricted Freeman to the silver medal, she became the first 400m runner of either sex to retain an Olympic title. She also struck gold in the 200m, thus emulating the feat achieved by Valerie Briscoe-Hooks in 1984 and pre-empting Michael Johnson's golden double by 15 minutes. In Sydney another place in the Olympic record books will be beckoning her. No woman has ever completed a hat-trick of wins in the same Olympic track and field event.

If Pérec is to become the first she will have to make up the ground she has lost since succumbing to the debilitating Epstein-Barr virus. She is 32 now and has not raced in a French vest for three years. With her graceful, eight-foot-long stride, though, she has been making progress in her catch-up mission. That she has been doing so with the help of Wolfgang Meier has added further intrigue to the beguiling mystery that is Marie-José Pérec.

She always has been an idiosyncratic variation on the theme of sporting enigmas: a volatile character brought up next to an active volcano on Basse-Terre, the main island of Guadeloupe, the French colony in the Caribbean; an athlete who describes herself as "a fighter" but who is prone to withdraw on the warm-up track if she doesn't fancy her chances or simply the weather; a woman who fled from France, where she lived from the age of 16, complaining about media harassment and a supposed obsession for printing photo-graphs of her running leotard riding up her buttocks and who subsequently invited worldwide exposure as a fashion model and happily posed naked.

In forming an alliance with Meier, though, Pérec has exceeded even her own legendary unpredictability. It is not just that she has swapped her sunshine lifestyle in California - her Malibu mansion and her place in the John Smith sprinting stable alongside Maurice Greene and Ato Boldon - for a spartan existence in the bleak Baltic port of Rostock. More unlikely is the fact that Pérec has teamed up with the man who guided Marita Koch to the women's 400m world record, 47.60sec - a performance she once implied was achieved with steroid assistance.

After her Olympic 400m win in Atlanta in 48.25 sec, which moved her to third place on the all-time ranking list (behind Koch's 47.60 and Jarmila Kratochvilova's 47.99), Pérec famously proclaimed: "I think the world record is the race I ran today. I don't think anyone has run under 49 secs until now. To run this race I didn't need any 'biological preparation'."

Meier is Koch's husband. They run a sports shop together in Rostock. He is also her former coach. He was first introduced to Pérec at the Barcelona Olympics eight years ago - a meeting she vividly recalls. "I asked him if he had given drugs to his athletes," she reflected. "He answered by telling me I should come and train with him and find out by myself."

Since 31 January this year, Pérec has been discovering Meier's methods at first-hand. She insists there is nothing questionable. "I didn't go to Rostock to hide and take drugs," she said. "I must be the cleanest French athlete." And Meier denies involvement in the state-run steroid-administration system in the former East Germany. "I'm a trainer, nothing else," he said.

As the trainer now responsible for the elegant 6ft runner known in the French press as La Gazelle, Meier has done a good job so far. Pérec made an encouraging return to competition in Lausanne on 5 July, clocking 22.71sec for 200m as runner-up to Debbie Ferguson of the Bahamas. And in Nice three days later she recorded 50.32sec, behind Merry (50.05) and Lorraine Graham of Jamaica (50.10), in her first 400m race for four years.

Her second one-lap test would have been in the European Cup at Gateshead a fortnight ago had she not felt her hamstrings cramping, or quite possibly the bite of the north-east wind, while "warming up". Organisers of the British Grand Prix at Crystal Palace next Saturday had hoped to pit the reigning Olympic champion against Freeman and Merry, but Pérec has decided instead to compete in the French Championships in Nice next weekend. She is in no great hurry to face Freeman, the woman expected to take her Olympic crown. "I'll race her when I'm ready," she said.

In the meantime, Pérec seems happy to concentrate on training in Rostock, under the direction of Meier and in the company of her boyfriend Anthuan Maybank, the American 400m runner. "I wish I'd moved there much earlier," she said. "The work I've been doing is much different to what I've done before. I'm discovering things I never knew."

Those discoveries remain a closely guarded secret. Earlier this month Pérec claimed Meier had turned down "a lucrative offer" to divulge details of her training programme. When asked who had made the bid, she said: "The Australians." It all adds to the richness of the plot thickening for the women's 400m in Sydney.