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Merlene Ottey: “I enjoy running”

An interview with Merlene after her performance at the Meeting in Tallin, Estonia.  ( (21st of July 2004)

Translated by Kalvi Noomagi -

The Independent's journalist had recently asked Kathy Cook-Smallwood, who also took part at the Olympics in 1980 in Moscow and was running together with Merlene Ottey who won the bronze medal. She replied: “Sorry, I don’t remember anything; I left the sports 18 years ago and all I do now is taking care of my three children...

But Ottey, native Jamaican, tells: “I have many nice memories, but one is special: My first race in Moscow in 1980. That will be my favourite. I will never forget it.

She is inspiring Devers to continue

“I don’t believe that I could achieve something extraordinary in Athens. The optimal would be in 100 meters 11.15, in 200 meters i rather don’t bid. If i could reach the semi-final, that would be very good. But anyway, its good to feel the spirit of that competition,” told the owner of 28 medals.

“The great wish to run and compete is in the balance in me. People think that in some age there are some impossible things. Phew! I want to see how fast i could run at the age 44. And I could run and run fast.”

At the beginning, Ottey was thinking, that she will resign after 1984, then after 1988. But as she was running faster, she threw away the idea. Why to resign when you are still on the dais.

“Now I feel, that I give the example for everyone, even Gail Devers admits that I am inspiring her to continue. More they talk about my age, the more self-confident I run.”

Chose the new land when old did not need her anymore

Two years ago Ottey, who got long medals and honour for Jamaica, took Slovenian citizenship. She lived yearlong in Ljubljana and trained under Srdan Djordievic, but she relied on the fact that officials of Jamaican athletics stepped away.     

You changed the citizenship because you wanted to get to the Olympics?

“Oh no, Olympics is not the only goal! But the terror I was environed, made me angry,” before the Olympics she was dropped off from the training camp.

“I was thinking: well, if I am too old, I`ll go and find new land, where I am estimated. To represent the new country at the Olympics is the new challenge for me.”

The same Ottey was named the ambassador of Jamaica in 1993.

“I was in Jamaica 4 years ago, got angry that much, ” the legend of running is smiling. “Jamaican athletes are my friends, but I communicate with them in Europe. My parents visit me here.”

0.005 seconds to the Olympic gold

There is one prize, Ottey have not gotten and if they do not disqualify all the other in Athens, she will not get it – she does not have the Olympic gold medal.

Got Olympic medals from 1980, it seemed that she could take the gold at the fifth Olympic games. Ottey crossed over the 100 meters finish along with Gail Devers, both got the time 10.94. Rustle: they give out the gold medals?

No! Americans gave the gold medal to the American, speaking about the 0.005 seconds.

Ottey was calm, in Estonian Olympic Games book, there is the argumentation: “The decision who is better depend upon how to calculate the situation. If more important is the head, Gail won, if body, then I won.”

Today she knows that she was in the best shape in Stuttgart 1993. She mistimed the top-conditions before Olympics. “If they gave that gold to Devers and some days later I was second in 200 meters, I knew: I will never get the Olympic gold medal.”

If you continue, there is possible the Olympics in Peking?

“In principal yes. I run until I could,” answers Ottey who will be at age 48 at that time.

“It is not always easy. I train 5-7 days in a week. It is not easy to carry the loads - sometimes I ease off. If the results are not good enough for international arena, I run for the Slovenian club. And I enjoy my running.”  

Greatest Female Olympic athlete Merlene Ottey

Greatest Female Olympic athlete Merlene Ottey is set for seventh Olympic Games
Tuesday 17 August 2004

Athens - When Merlene Ottey surprised everyone by emerging as a medal contender for Jamaica at the Moscow Olympics back in 1980 no one could have imagined that 24 years later she would still be an Olympic sprinter – and still be surprising everyone with her performances, including herself.

The surprise is not merely that Ottey is still competing at her seventh Olympic Games, this time for Slovenia, but, at 44, that she is still fit and quick enough to be a serious contender, for a place, at least, in the 100m final. Ottey’s results this year – not least her recent 11.09 – have sent gasps of astonishment around the athletics world and re-written the veterans’ record books.

“My target this year was to get to my seventh Olympics,” she says. “I believed I could do it if I stayed healthy, and then my goal was not to run just one race here. It seems from recent results that I can get to the semi-finals now, and maybe better.”

Not that she is putting any pressure on herself – Christine Arron, Veronica Campbell and LaTasha Colander are her tips for the medals. Indeed, Ottey admits she is enjoying the fact that these are the first Games since her Olympic debut when she doesn’t have to bear the pressure of being a medal favourite.

 “I didn’t expect to do fantastically well in Moscow, I remember, and here I feel the same,” she says. “I don’t have the pressure to win. It’s a huge surprise that I’m still running at this age, to be honest. I never thought I’d be in the sport so long and be competing so long.

“What keeps me going? I just enjoy it. It’s got to the point where if I don’t run I don’t feel good. I’ve got a passion for the sport. And I was curious to see how fast I could run at the age of 44.”

It was that same sense of curiosity that aroused Ottey’s desire to become an Olympic athlete in the first place, some 28 years ago.

“I remember the first time I heard of the Olympics was in 1976,” she says. “Everyone in Jamaica was listening to it on the radio because we had this sprinter called Don Quarrie going for a gold medal. I wanted to know what this thing the Olympics was, and I said then my goal was to be in the next one. I thought, ‘If they make such a fuss about one athlete, I definitely want to be there.’”

Four years later the “fuss” was about Ottey as the raw 20 year-old took bronze in the 200m finishing just one hundredth of a second behind Natalya Bochina of the Soviet Union, in a race won by GDR’s Barbel Wockel. With Evelyn Ashford out of the running due to the USA’s boycott, athletes from Eastern Europe had been expected to take all the medals.

“All I can remember is hearing the Jamaicans shouting ‘lean, lean, lean’,” says Ottey of that inaugural final. It wasn’t the last time she was to be denied a higher medal in a desperately close finish. Having taken a 200m bronze in LA in 1984, when she was expected to win gold, Ottey was inched out of the medals altogether in Seoul eight years later by Heike Drechsler and so became the first athlete to finish fourth while dipping under 22 seconds (21.99).

She was at her peak in the early 1990s and, at 32, was again expected to medal highly in both the sprints in Barcelona. Again it wasn’t to be. She clocked 10.88 in the 100m final and yet could only finish fifth in a race won by USA’s Gail Devers, before claiming her third bronze in four Games in the 200m.

The Atlanta Games were even more agonising as Ottey, now 36, lost the 100m gold to Devers by just five thousandths of a second and then was overhauled by Marie-Jose Perec in the final strides of the 200m. Devers had denied Ottey by an even smaller margin (one thousandth) at the previous year’s World Championships and it is partly because of those two epic duels that Ottey names the American sprint hurdler as her greatest opponent over the years.

“Devers has to be the one,” she says. “Because I was always losing to her in a photo finish.” It will be fascinating to see if the two are drawn together when the 100m starts on Friday.

Ottey’s record-breaking eighth Olympic medal came four years ago when Jamaica took silver in the 4x100m behind the golden girls of the Bahamas. Sydney was not Ottey’s most enjoyable Games experience, however. Not only did she again finish fourth in the 100m, denied of a medal by another slim margin (a hundredth of a second), but her selection for the event caused such controversy in the Jamaican team that relations between her and the federation were soured.

“It was a shock,” says Ottey. “I felt betrayed at the time, but now all that’s changed and we are friends again. I still have tons of fans and friends and relatives in Jamaica and it will always be a special place for me.”

Ottey had moved to Slovenia to train with her coach, Srdjan Djordjevic, in 1998, and later took the simple decision to compete for her new country. “I wanted to compete in international competitions if I could and I am glad Slovenia has given me the opportunity,” she says. “I was living in Slovenia, training there and I needed a country. It was the easiest choice for me. I don’t think I would still be in the sport otherwise.

“The people at home thought I was crazy. They had heard there were bombs going off. But I wasn’t going to take anyone else’s opinion, I wanted to see for myself, and when I got there I thought it was fantastic. It’s a great place to live.”

According to statistician Mark Butler, Ottey’s Olympic record of three silvers, five bronzes, two fourths, one fifth, one sixth and one eighth place make her the greatest female Olympic track and field athlete of all time, ahead on points even of Fanny Blankers-Koen, Irena Szewinska, Shirley Strickland and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, despite never becoming an Olympic champion.

She is already the oldest Olympic athletics medallist, and if she reaches the semis here in Athens will contest her 50th Olympic race. As for whether she can go further, coach Djordjevic is warning us not to expect “miracles”. “It’s a fantastic achievement that she can run faster than 11.10,” he says.

Indeed, if she can keep that sort of form, Ottey could even be a medal contender at the European Championships in 2006, a meeting she intends to enter “if I am still running”. And what of Beijing? “I have been asked whether this will be my last Olympics ever since Barcelona,” she says. “I used to keep saying ‘yes’, or ‘maybe’. This time I have no idea.”

At some point, inevitably, age will catch up with Merlene Ottey and she will retire from the running track to pursue her fashion line and a form of physiotherapy known as TMG. Until then, we have at least one more chance to enjoy one of the greats of the Games.

Matthew Brown for the IAAF

Merlene Ottey: Running is my passion

Who in the World of sports hasn't heard of the famous sprinter Merlene Ottey. Performing for her native Country Jamaica she had won 36 medals at all the greatest events in Track & Field since 1980!?

At this Year's Olympic games in Athens, this 44 y.o. Icon of the World of Athletics will compete as a Citizen of her new Homeland - Slovenia.


In Athens you will be competing for the seventh time in the Olympic Arena. Can you tell us your impression from Moscow1980, your first Olympic Games? How do you recall that event?
It's was over 24 years ago so you'll understand I don't recall my races very well. But I certainly do recall the moments just before one of my final races: one of the Jamaican National Team Coaches came to me and said: "You can grab the medal!".

"Despite his frank statement that came to me as a surprise, I felt no special pressure - nobody demand nothing!

I just enjoyed the race, ran fast and the medal was really there for me!"

You have been admired in Slovenia not only for all your achievements, but also for your great will, readiness to practice hard - an all this at the age of 44. Where does all the energy come from?

It is all very simple - I still enjoy running!

It's a real passion! And I am really very sorry that my greatest wishes will not come true in Athens - namely, I expected to perform as a Slovenian National Relay at 4 x 100 m. I find it one of the most exciting disciplines in athletics.

Merlene Ottey, Maja Nose, Kristina Zumer and Alenka BikarDue to many injuries of other Relay Team members we couldn't qualify for the Olympics so I'll have to focus on both individual races. And I intend to do it - the best way I can!

What are your goals for Athens?
Running a few more races before the Games will help me improve my readiness and raise the shape for the Games to the highest possible level. My only goals are: proving and proving again! Proving I can do it! I think I can aim to one semi-final race at least. If I manage to improve my shape n the coming two weeks, I could do even better than that

Your practice has often been interrupted in the past - there were too many injuries. Is at the present time all going on well?
I've been exposed to many, too many injuries since the Sydney Olympics, yes. . Having that in mind, I find the upcoming season the least troublesome so far. On the other hand I have become a lot slower and that made me, in fact it forced me to work even harder and in a longer period of time.

After one of your recent races in Talin, and after becoming our National record holder at 100 m with 11.17, you complained on a very cold weather. There will be no such trouble in Athens! So?

No, of course not! (She laughs...) I like the heat, so I'm looking forward to perform in Athens.

This is going to be your first Olympic appearance under Slovenian Coat of Arms. How do you feel about that? Have you had any bad experience? Any negative comment of your fellows, Jamaicans?
No. Not at all- Regarding the Jamaicans I can tell you, they have advised me many years ago to quit running! Their opinion might have been different in case I could have run better at that time...

But I am not concerned about that kind of opinion at the time being.

Can we have your opinion - a word or two - about your new National Team members?
There are some great Athletes in the Team that can expect to get into finals in their disciplines, among them I consider Jolanda Ceplak as a pretender for one of medals at 800 m, of course - after all, she is considered a favourite by others, too. She must be under enormous pressure, since all Slovenia expect her to grab the medal - and I'm sure she capable of doing it! I wish her all the best!

What is your comment on most recent drug abuse affairs - foremost those regarding the American Marion Jones?
I don't find pointing a finger onto any particular Athlete, especially when there is no evidence. Therefore I think there is no legal ground to accuse Marion Jones unless and until anything is proven.  If there is any evidence, I'd like very much to see it! And the same goes for the so called "affair" regarding Torri Edwards. Se has been suspected as well to have been using illegal drugs!

Who would You bet on in a female 100 m at the Olympics in Athens?

On no one at the moment! Recently, before those above mentioned affairs in the American Team I would put all my bet on Torri Edwards.

It's all changed now and I can not tell! no one can! It depends on so many things...

Author: SiOL/ Martin Pavcnik

Photo: SiOL/ Vid Ponikvar

Translated by: Edvard Bogataj

Slovenian National Female Relay Team 4 x 100 m  at the World Championsips in Paris 2003 (from the left):

Merlene Ottey, Maja Nose, Kristina Žumer and Alenka Bikar.

Their National record: 43.90.

The greatest female sprinter in history

Merlene v mladih letih - ena najstarejših slik, ki so mi na voljoSomeone would say that she has been around forever – true is it that she has been among the ten best female sprinters every year since 1980. The name is Merlene Ottey. Ottey’s hometown is Cold Springs, Jamaica, but these years she only has occasional visits to her homeland – especially for the yearly championships that counts as selection for the major championships such as the Olympic Games and the World Championships. She was chosen for her first Jamaican team as a 14-year old and registered her first 200 metres time in 1975 with 25.9 seconds. Merlene Ottey was formerly married to AmericanNa tiskovni konferenci v Ljubljani - 5. julij 2000 hurdler and high jumper Nat Page and has also previously lived with Italian sprinter Stefano Tilli. Now she is living alone in Monte Carlo.

Ottey was the first women to run faster than 7 seconds for the indoor 60 metres (6.96 sec.). She was also the first woman to run faster than 22 seconds for the indoor 200 metres and that time of 21.87 is still the World Record indoors. She has never held a World Record outdoors but has the fourth and second fastest times ever over 100 and 200 meters – only beaten by Florence Griffith-Joyner's questionable (as is often said) World Records of 10.49 and 21.34 and Marion Jones' 10.71 and Christine Arron's 10.73 at 100 metres. The average of her 10 best runs at 100 metres and 200 metres is 10.81 seconds and 21.81 respectively.

merlene_monaco01_430.jpg (33354 bytes)Her fastest time over the 100 metres of 10.74 seconds from the 1996 Grand Prix final in Milan (ran that time at the age of 36) and her 21.93 seconds for the 200 metres which she ran as a 35-year old in 1995 are both World Veteran Records (over 35 years). Also indoors she has the World Veteran Record for the 60 metres with 7.01 seconds from the winter of 1999.

Merlene Ottey has loads of special records in athletics – some of which might never be broken. Most amazing is probably her (at the time of writing) 67 legal sub-11 runs for the 100 metres (almost doubling second best Marlies Göhr's 34 sub-11s). Also over the double distanceDaniel P. Zimmermann, Merlene in Srdjan Djordjević (200 metres) she holds she record with 15 runs under 22 seconds. She has run the best ever 100 metre/200 metre double in one day with the times of 10.90 and 21.77 seconds at the Monaco Grand Prix meeting on August 7th 1993. Moreover she had the 8 best 100 metre times in one season (1991) which is a record just as her 6 season best times over 200 metres in 1990.

Her remarkable 57 100 metre finals (from September 1987 to August 1991) and 36 200 metre finals (from 1989 to August 1991) without losses stands out as a unbeaten mark in the women’s sprint. Unfortunately for Ottey the first loss she ran into over both distances (ending her unbeaten series) was at the 1991 World Championships – only getting bronze behind Katrin Krabbe and Gwen Torrence at bothmerlene_21.jpg (40083 bytes) 100 and 200 metres. That was probably one of the biggest disappointments of her career. 

Though on several occasions she has celebrated international medals. She is the most winning female athlete at the Olympics with 8 medals and she holds the record for both sexes with 14 World Championship medals. Indoors she has a record of 6 medals at World Championships. Still she lacks an Olympic gold medal and a gold medal over the 100 metre distance, but it has been so close a couple of times. 

Counting all the medals Ottey won in different championships you reach an amazing number of 46 (5 junior medals). Following her first individual gold medal at the World Championships in 1993 she was honoured ambassador of Jamaica and now has to be addressed Your Excellence by Jamaicans.

Imerlene7.jpg (33034 bytes)n the IAAF Grand Prix series she has won the overall women’s title twice in 1987 and 1990 (and came second in 1991, 1992 and 1996). Furthermore she won the individual title for 100 meters in 1989, 1991, 1994, 1996 and for 200 meters in 1992. 

All in all a fantastic career that truly makes Merlene Ottey the greatest female sprinter in history. Let me just finish by quoting ZZ Top: "She’s got legs and knows how to use them"

by Jakob Munkhřj Nielsen (October 2000)

A Lifetime Experience at Stadium Australia

merlene14.jpg (8288 bytes)Merlene literally sparkled in the bright lights of Stadium Australia. She looked the picture of physical and athletic perfection in her black and gold flecked Jamaican suit when she stepped on to the stage for the semi-finals. Swathed in a large Jamaican flag, I sat 10 rows from the front track side past the finish line at the top of the bend. This was a seat worth ten times the $165 I had paid for it.

Australia's own Melinda Gainsford was introduced to a 110000 strong, deafening cheer in Lane 1. As Merlene was introduced in lane 4 the roar rivalled that of Gainsford. Australians are very knowledgeable spectators and one thing they love is a battler; or someone who continues on in the face of setback and hardship. We all know Merlene is the epitome of that. As her imaged flashed up on the large screen many people around me commented that she looked more beautiful and athletic than ever (is that possible???). My pulse quickened to a frightening rate as they went down on their marks. As the gun went I screamed like a crazed teenager at a rock concert till she crossed the line. The ease of her win and the scalps she had taken (Sturrup, Pintusevich, Arron, Ferguson) had the crowd questioning whether now Jones had a serious challenger for the gold. I was slightly concerned at the relatively slow time of 11.22 but keep in mind that there was a head wind of 0.5m, quite cool conditions and Merlene was clearly not at full pace.

When all four qualifiers in the second semi posted faster times that Merlene, it was clear that she had a battle on her hands if she wanted to be on the podium. I have never been as nervous in all my life as I was when the finalists were introduced. The false start from Thanou didn't help either. I can honestly say that I did not see Jones win as my eyes never left Merlene in lane 3. Although as she appeared to get a slow start, she actually had the 2nd fastest reaction of 0.163 behind the lightning start Tanya Lawrence. Merlene kept balance and form throughout the race and crossed the line for what to me seemed obviously to be the bronze. By this time I had already run track side.

I had called Daniel, Merlene's manager, about an hour before the semi while they were out on the warm-up track, to wish her luck and to tell Daniel I would go track side with the flag if she got a medal.

I did not know how to react when the results where made official that Merlene had again missed a medal by 0.01 (how many times have us fans endured that). It was Stuttgart (1993) and Atlanta (1996) all over again. With all the grace, dignity and professionalism that personifies Merlene she was very quick to congratulate the winners especially Tanya (which I thought was touching considering the dramas of the team relay boycott) and not wanting to take any of the limelight away from Jones (who I must say was supreme) and the other winners, Merlene turned and slowly walked towards the mix zone and out of the stadium.

While Merlene was competing on Friday night I had delivered and gift package of flowers, the Jamaican flag and good luck card to her manager's hotel. The card read: "On behalf of all your fans I would like to wish you all the very best of luck. Whatever the result you have done yourself , your country and your supporters proud. Thank you for the excitement and inspiration you continue to give us. God speed and GO GIRL !!!!"

Many spectators around me commented that there is certainly no performance based reason for Merlene to stop now. What I love the most about Merlene is that she is living proof to the human race that age is just a number on a birth certificate.

Jocelyn McLennan (official Sydney Olympic delegate)

Merlene Ottey  -  The Early Years

The Years in Jamaica

Caricature of Merlene Ottey from the newspaper Daily NebraskanMerlene was born on 10 May 1960 in Pondside – a small rural community in one of Jamaica’s 14  parishes, Hanover. Her parents were Hubert and Joan Ottey and Merlene was the fourth of seven children. Her brothers and sisters are named Desmond, Yvonne, Beverley, Janet, Ruthven and Hugh. She went to the following schools Gurney's Mount (-1971) and Pondside All-Age (1971-1976). Later she graduated from Rusea's (1976-1978) and Vere Technical high schools (1978-). It was back in those school days in the seventies that the inspiration and ambition to run the sprints came to Merlene. Her inspiration mainly came from listening to the track and field broadcasts from the 1976 Olympics in Montreal (Canada), where her fellow countryman Donald Quarrie ran in the sprint finals. During those school years in Jamaica when she was still a teenager Merlene Ottey accomplished to win several medals at national and regional championships - the greatest accomplishment being the 1979 200 metre bronze medal at the Pan American Games.

Some of Merlene's race results from these years can be found here.

The Years at University

In August 1979 Merlene Ottey was given a stormy and enthusiastic welcome to University of Nebraska in Lincoln (Nebraska, USA). This was where her road to international track and field stardom would be given a kick-start running for the Huskers team. The years at Nebraska Merlene set several collegiate records and even some 300 yards world records. She was a seven-time indoor national champion, and won just as many national titles outdoors. To go along with those titles, Ottey was an All-American 25 times. At one time in 1982, Ottey held nine of the 10 top times in 300-yard dash in the world.

Merlene Ottey, ko je nastopala za Univerzo Nebraska - leta 1983Back in Jamaica her accomplishments were really beginning to be recognized: In 1980 she was named Carreras Sportswoman of the Year - an award she was to win eleven times (1980, 1982-1985, 1987, 1989-1991, 1993-1994). In the summer of 1984 Ottey graduated from Nebraska University with a Bachelor of Arts degree. The same year (3 February 1984) she married American high jumper cum hurdler Nathaniel Page.

In 1999 Merlene was named Top Female Athlete of the Century at Nebraska University. Read Jay Saunders' article on that award at the Daily Nebraskan website (search for Ottey).

 Photo of Merlene Ottey running for Nebraska University in 1983 
(thanks to fan club member Dave for supplying me with this photo)

Merlene Ottey Vision 2000

Takole je junija 2000 trenirala, češrav še ni vedela, ali bo smela nastopiti v Sydneyu ali neWell how many times didn’t you think that now it must be the end of Merlene Ottey’s career? But she keeps coming back. Though she in 1984 finished her university fashion design-study and therefore has an alternative career waiting for her, running still is fun for her. She is now preparing to run for Jamaica at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney – her big dream is being on the start line for yet another Olympic 100 metre final. In that case Sydney 2000 will be her sixth Olympics. By then she will be 40 years old – amazing when you realise that she thought of ending her career back in 1986.

Exactly this fact illustrates why I am a fan of Merlene Ottey. I really appreciate her effort and willingness to compete – more than her ability to win gold medals. Every time she did not win a gold medal at an international championship she came back and won new races at Grand Prix events. So many times she has shown that she is truly the best in the world and that she is always willing to take up a challenge.

jmnottey.jpg (2706 bytes)

For the season 2000 she is back from the shadows of doping controversy and she is prepared for yet another year among the top female sprinters. I wish Merlene Ottey the best of luck this season and for Sydney 2000!

Jakob Munkhřj Nielsen (January 2000)

Press Conference in Ljubljana - July 5. 2000

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Getting ready for her Olympics in Sydney - Ljubljana, June 2000

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