The grand old Ottey show just runs and runs

It was on 28 July 1980 that Merlene Ottey settled into her starting blocks in the Lenin Stadium for her first Olympic race. It was two days after Steve Ovett had beaten Seb-astian Coe in the 800m final, four days before their epic rematch in the 1500m final in Moscow. Running from lane seven, Ottey surged to victory in the sixth heat of the women's 200m, clocking 22.70sec. Britain's Kathy Cook - or Kathy Smallwood, as she was at the time - finished in second place, 0.45sec adrift.

"I'm sorry, I can't remember the race at all," Cook confessed last week. It was hardly surprising. It was, after all, 24 years ago. Margaret Thatcher was one year into her reign as Prime Minister. Bjorn Borg was the Wimbledon champion. And television viewers were gripped by the question of who had shot J R.

All of which lends historical perspective to the feat Ottey will achieve in Athens next month when she competes in her seventh successive Olympic Games. At 44, she happens to be the same age as Cook, who has been a retired athlete for 18 years now, and whose running around last Wednesday night consisted of getting her three children to the end-of-term school production of Oliver! and making it to a parents' evening on time.

"To me, it seems like another lifetime," the holder of the British 100m, 200m and 400m records said, reflecting on Ottey in Moscow. "I watch her on television now and I'm amazed. I don't know where she gets the motivation from to keep doing it."

The answer, according to Ottey, is partly to prove the ageists wrong. "People always say that after a certain age you cannot do certain things, so I set my own goals," she said. "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.

"I actually thought about stopping after the 1984 Olympics and again in 1988, but I kept on running my best, so I thought, 'Why stop?' Every year I was running in the top three in the major championships. There was just no reason to stop."

Only last year, at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, Ottey missed a place in the top three of the 60m final by a mere 0.03sec. In May this year she won the 100m in the opening Grand Prix meeting on the European Circuit, the Fanny Blankers-Koen Games in Hengelo. Her best times of 2004 are a wind-assisted 11.15 for 100m and a "legal" 23.16sec for 200m. In Athens, the native Jamaican intends to contest both sprint events in the aqua-blue colours of her adopted homeland, Slovenia.

She already holds the record for the most medals won by a woman in Olympic track-and-field competition: eight - three silvers and five bronzes. She is also the oldest medallist in Olympic track-and-field history, having held off Marion Jones on the anchor leg to secure silvers for the Jamaican 4 x 100m relay team in Sydney four years ago, four months past her 40th birthday. In Athens she will become the first athlete to compete in seven Olympic Games, eclipsing a record she currently shares with the British javelin thrower Tessa Sanderson and the Romanian discus thrower Lia Manoliu.

Ottey's Olympic odyssey has truly been an astonishing journey. It has taken her from the era of East German domination of women's sprints, through the trail-blazing advent of Florence Griffith-Joyner, to the rise of Jones and now, it would seem, beyond.

As a 20-year-old in Moscow in 1980, she went on to take the 200m bronze medal in a final won by the East German Barbel Wockel. In Los Angeles four years later, she won bronze in the 100m and in the 200m, but in Seoul in 1988 she finished outside the medals. She placed fourth in the 200m final, in which Griffith-Joyner clocked a world-record 21.34sec before suddenly announcing her retirement at the age of 28, the same age as Ottey at the time.

It remains the great frustration of Ottey's career that she has never managed to find a Midas touch on the Olympic stage (although she did win the World Championships 200m title in 1993 and 1995). She lined up favourite for the 100m in Barcelona in 1992 but finished only fifth in that event and took another bronze in the 200m. Even more acute disappointment was to follow in Atlanta four years later, when Ottey crossed the finish line level with Gail Devers in the 100m final. Both were timed at 10.94sec but, after scrutiny of the photo-finish picture, the American was given the verdict by 0.005sec.

Ottey protested, but to no avail. She went on to take another silver in the 200m and bronze in the 4 x 100m relay, but, at the age of 36, her best chance of Olympic gold had gone. In the 2000 Games she did win a silver in the 4 x 100m relay, and finished fourth in the 100m.

Sydney, though, was uncomfortable Olympic experience for Ottey. It followed her reinstatement by the International Association of Athletics Federations after testing positive for nandrolone the previous summer. Her selection ahead of younger rivals who had beaten her in the national trials caused outrage within the Jamaican camp and in Jamaica itself.

It prompted Ottey to switch her allegiance to Slovenia, where she has lived, in the capital, Ljubljana, since 1998 and where her coach, Srdan Djordievic, is based.

"Slovenia is the right place for me," Ottey said. "There was this big fuss in 2000 because people said I was too old. 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 a new challenge to me.

"I have been through many ups and downs in my career and I've always been strong enough to come back. I have many good memories, but one of them stands out - my first Olympic race in Moscow in 1980. That will always be my favourite. I'll never forget that."

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