Ottey on course for one last hurrah

Mike Rowbottom on the 37-year-old queen of sprinting, who hopes to add a world championship 100 metres title in Athens to her vast collection
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The full realisation of how much she is valued in the world of athletics came home to Merlene Ottey four years ago in Stuttgart's Gottleib Daimler stadium, as she received a prolonged torrent of sympathetic applause while accepting the world championship 100 metres silver medal.

Her reception outdid that afforded to the winner of the event, Gail Devers, who was given the verdict by one thousandth of a second after both athletes had recorded 10.94sec.

"That was the first time I realised how much I was appreciated by people," Ottey said yesterday. "After that moment I would not let track and field stress me any more. I was just going to run for the fun of it. The gold medal is not always so important.''

At 37, the woman who has long been referred to as the Queen of Sprinting - and who recently described herself as the "Grandmother of Sprinting'' - has established herself in the sport's history.

Since she started her international career in 1979, the graceful Jamaican has amassed 32 medals in major championships, including a record number of 13 in the world championships.

"I consider I've done a lot in track and field," she said. "If I had to retire tomorrow, I would be content. Anything else now is just an extra.''

Her sentiments are understandable. Grandmother, however, has not finished yet; indeed, her desire to compete for those extra medals has outlasted even that of her sometime training partner and contemporary, Linford Christie.

At the behest of their shoe company, Ottey and Christie sat together under the TV lights yesterday garbed in robes designed on the theme of Ancient Greece and wearing replicas of the laurel wreaths which marked the first Olympic champions.

But while the King of sprinting has abdicated - Christie is only here to watch - the Queen remains, seeking to maintain her sway in what must, realistically, be her last global championship.

"Three years ago I said I would retire from championships when Linford retired," she recalled with a grin. "But I have no problem with the Jamaican federation or people, and as long as I am doing well I will always run for Jamaica."

When she finally does retire, Ottey plans to employ her talents within the world of fashion - she already has experience of modelling and has helped design her own brand of sportswear.

But a woman who describes her life as "a miracle" is not about to pin herself down with any mundane deadlines.

For all the talk of running for fun, her passion for the event still burns as bright. Last year in the Olympics, when Devers beat her once again to the 100m gold on a photo- finish, Ottey was regally indignant. She said quite plainly that she had been cheated out of the Olympic title because Devers - who was given the verdict by five thousandths of a second - had broken the finish line with her shoulder rather than her torso.

The indignance returned yesterday when she was asked to comment upon the International Amateur Athletic Federation's late decision to award wild card entries to all defending champions who had failed to qualify.

"I don't like the way it has been done," said Ottey, who had to travel to Jamaica from her home in Monte Carlo to compete in her national trials. "I really believe that if Michael Johnson had not been injured for the US trials there wouldn't be wild cards.''

This year Ottey has recovered from the hamstring injury which prevented her contesting the world indoor championships and, if there were any doubt about the nature of ambition, you have only to look at her to clarify it.

"I changed my hair a week ago," Ottey said. "It's something for good luck. A goldish colour. Let's see what happens." In the 200 metres, Ottey faces the Frenchwoman who outran her in the finishing straight of the Olympic final last year, Marie-Jose Perec. Her chances in the shorter sprint look brighter in the absence of Devers, who is only doing the relay and the defending champion, Gwen Torrence, who has withdrawn. Her main challenger appears to be Marion Jones, the formidable up-and-coming talent making a return to the sport from US basketball.

"There are so many good sprinters around," Ottey said. "And the world championships always seem to provide surprises, so I have to be ready to produce my best.''

That is something she has striven to produce since she learned her running barefoot, keeping one stride ahead of the boys in the back streets of her home village of Hanover, 12 miles from Montego Bay.

Her biggest asset, she believes, is her ability to get straight back to running after setbacks or defeats. "I accept those losses and go on," she said. "I don't hide away or say I am going to retire like a lot of people do.''

Her championship record is not something that she is preoccupied with. "Maybe when I finish I will sit down and count the medals," she said. "But not now." When that time comes, the tally is very likely to be more than the current figure of 32. And a global 100 metres gold, after nearly 20 years of trying, would probably mean more than any of the others.

`If I had to retire tomorrow I would be content. Anything else now is just an extra'