Perec the first lady of Atlanta

Norman Fox looks at the double champion who did not mind being upstaged
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Marie -Jose Perec heard the roar but she didn't see Michael Johnson cross the line at the end of his phenomenal world-record 200 metres. Never had one new Olympic champion so dramatically and so quickly upstaged another. Perec, who 15 minutes before had completed her own double of 200m and 400m golds, was not in the least bit upset.

The 28-year-old French world 400m champion, who originally came out of poverty in Guadeloupe, likes to keep herself to herself but increasingly finds that in France everyone wants to have a part of her.

"I suppose it's going to get worse now," she said after she finished her 200m race in which she overtook the ever unfortunate Merlene Ottey over the last few strides. "I don't like it when I walk in the street in France and everyone seems to recognise me." She found it so embarrassing after her first Olympic victory four years ago that she moved to Los Angeles.

Perec was the first woman athlete to complete the 200m and 400m double since Valerie Briscoe-Hooks in 1984. She said: "I had thought about trying to run the 400m and 400m hurdles here, but I wasn't getting the hurdling technique right. Then I thought about dropping the 200m. Now I'm so pleased I didn't. I really didn't expect to win the 200m. I sensed that the others thought I was beaten on the bend, but I thought 'Don't panic' and I came through."

She confesses to feeling sorry for Ottey who has won four bronze medals and two silvers but at 36 is highly unlikely ever to win gold. "After the race I was feeling so happy," said Perec, "but then I saw Merlene and I suddenly felt so sad for her. I've admired her so much for so many years. I saw my own face on the big screen and it was not the face of someone who had won the gold medal. I was bothered by Merlene - I felt as if I couldn't celebrate while she was so sad."

Perec only showed promise as an athlete when she was 16 and had moved from the Caribbean to Paris. She claims that as a teenager she was not even aware that the Olympic Games existed. Her career has had several setbacks and was not helped when her original coach, Jacques Poasenta, insisted on her taking up the 200m too quickly after she had won the 1992 Olympic 400m.

After leaving for California she began to be coached by John Smith, a former UCLA 400m runner who now accepts that Perec's next move may be to run some more 400m hurdles events, but that her future will be in the 800m.

The significance of Perec's achievements here has faded all too quickly in the shadow of Johnson's records. It was hardly noticed that the time she set in the 400m (48.25sec) was the fastest by any woman in 10 years. By catching Cathy Freeman of Australia, she forced up the pace so much that six runners dipped below 50 seconds and four broke national records. Perec improved her personal best by nearly a second, and no woman had ever run faster over the distance in the United States. All facts that make fame inevitable, however much she disapproves.