Athletics: Ottey passes first test of record seventh Olympic effort

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The Independent Online

You might well have missed it in the blink or two of an eye, but in 11.14 seconds yesterday Merlene Ottey raced her way into the Olympic record books. Again.

Even before she settled into her starting blocks for her first-round heat in the women's 100 metres on the opening morning of competition, the graceful speed merchant from the Caribbean was already the most bemedalled female track and field Olympian - and the oldest medal winner.

She was four months past her 40th birthday when she held off Marion Jones to secure silver medals for the Jamaican 4x 100m relay team in Sydney four years ago. Yesterday, at the age of 44, she became the first track and field athlete to compete in seven Olympic Games, taking outright ownership of an honour she previously shared with the British javelin thrower Tessa Sanderson and the Romanian discus thrower Lia Manoliu.

Not that Ottey felt disposed to celebrate. "I feel fantastic," she said, declining to break stride as she headed for the changing rooms. "It was just the first round. It went well."

It did indeed. Although Ottey was beaten to the line by Yulia Nesterenko, who won in a Belarus record of 10.94sec, she recorded the joint second-fastest time of the morning and later coasted through to the semi-final with 11.24sec for first place in her quarter-final.

Nesterenko is 25. She was one month past her first birthday when Ottey made her Olympic debut in 1980.

That was in a first round heat of the women's 200m at the Lenin Stadium in Moscow. Ottey was a 20-year-old novice but won in 22.70sec, finishing 0.45sec clear of Britain's Kathy Cook, who happens to be the same age but who has been a retired sprinter for 18 years.

Back then, Bjorn Borg was Wimbledon champion, Margaret Thatcher was one year into her reign as prime minister and John Lennon was still alive. In the intervening 24 years, Ottey has collected eight Olympic medals: three silvers and five bronzes. She has been denied gold in a photo-finish, losing out to the American Gail Devers in the 100m final in Atlanta in 1996. She has overcome, and overturned, a suspension for a positive nandrolone test. And she has transformed herself from a West Indian into a European.

Yesterday marked Ottey's Olympic debut for Slovenia. She switched nationality after being criticised for taking the place of younger Jamaican sprinters in Sydney four years ago.

"There was this big fuss because people said I was too old," she reflected. "I thought, 'fine, if I'm too old, I'll find another country where I'm appreciated.' Running for another country in the Olympics is another challenge for me. People always say that after a certain age you cannot do certain things, so I set my own goals. I want to see how fast I can run at 44. For me, the most important motive is that I can still run and that I can still run fast."