The Golden Lady: Merlene Ottey

A Caribbean athlete at the peak of her career, Merlene Ottey is a world record holder as well as the darling of Jamaica

2nd in the 100 metres at Stuttgart in 1993. Photograph by Allsport/ Tony DuffyChallenge: Merlene at the 100 metres heats in Stuttgart. Photograph by Allsport/ Simon BrutyIs it for real? Merlene and Jamaica win gold at the Stuttgart World Track and Field Championships in 1993. Photograph by Allsport/ Gary M PriorMerlene inspects the new signboard for her old school, renamed in her honour. Photograph by Michael GordonMerlene leads American sprinter Gwen Torrence in the 100 metres in Lausanne, 1991. Photograph by Allsport/Mike PowellMerlene Ottey with German fans, Cologne 1990. Photograph by Allsport/Mike PowellStuttgart 1993, the 200 metres final: Merlene Ottey wins her first world gold medal. Photograph by Allsport/Gray MortimoreThe Ottey motorcade in Jamaica after her Stuttgart victory. Photograph by Rudolph Brown

World Champion, Ambassador-at-Large, Her Excellency, Golden Lady. These are some of the lofty titles that have been attached to a humble lass from Pondside in Jamaica, a village nestled deep in Hanover, the smallest of the island’s twelve parishes. In the last 15 years, Jamaica’s most impressive achievements in international track and field athletics have come from her.

Jamaica has never been short of sporting successes. It produced George Headley, Alf Valentine and Michael Holding in cricket, Mike McCallum and Trevor Berbick in boxing. In track and field athletics there have been stars like Herb McKenley, Arthur Wint, George Rhoden, Don Quarrie and Bert Cameron. Other Jamaica champions perform under the flags of other, adopted countries: Linford Christie, John Barnes and Lennox Lewis in Britain; Sandra Farmer-Patrick, Simon Brown and Patrick Ewing in the United States.

It is in track and field athletics that Jamaica’s greatest achievements have come. The island’s steep hillsides have produced some of the world’s fastest sprinters, most of them men. But more recently women too have been blazing a trail of their own on the international circuit, and ahead of them all is Merlene Joyce Ottey, the current 200-metres World Champion who mesmerised the crowd in the Stuttgart stadium when she won that title last year. Merlene now holds 19 medals, garnered at world-level games both indoors and out. They include four gold, four silver and 11 bronze. That’s more than any other female track star in history.

Merlene, born on May 10, 1960, was the fourth of seven children born to the late Hubert Ottey and his wife Joan. Hubert, who died in 1979, was a farmer; Joan is a midwife, still active in Pondside. Both had been talented runners in their youth. “Nearly everyone in the family liked to run,” says Merlene’s brother Ruthven, “but Merlene alone retained the enthusiasm and the discipline to become the star that she is today.”

“While I enjoyed running and games that involved running,” Merlene recalled, “it was not until I was about 14 that it dawned on me that I could have some sort of future in track.” She was already making her mark in local meets, running her first races barefoot. Her ambition was sharpened by the gold medal won by her compatriot Don Quarrie at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, which she watched on television.

At 15 she was accepted at the leading high school in Hanover. Convinced of her daughter’s potential, Joan Ottey journeyed with her to a national track meet in Kingston that year, in an attempt to have her selected on a team that was scheduled to compete overseas. “We were not familiar with anyone in Kingston then, so there was no home at which my mother and sister could overnight,” recalls Ruthven. Joan Ottey was taking no chances; she spent the night with her daughter at a police station, to make sure she was ready for the competition next day.

Merlene was selected, and went on to win gold medals in both sprints and the 4 x 100 metres relay.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Merlene rapidly established herself as a class athlete and rose to become the queen of the pack. In 1980 she won a track scholarship to Nebraska, and became the University’s most successful track performer ever on the collegiate circuit, winning several titles and becoming the first woman to run the 60 metres in under 7 seconds. During her time in the United States she was briefly married to the American track athlete Nat Paige.

In the summer of 1980 she made her Olympic debut in Moscow, and took her first global outdoor bronze medal in the 200 metres (22.20 seconds), after a wonderful duel with the Soviet Union’s Natalya Bochina (22.19), who nipped her for the silver. In taking the bronze, she became the first West Indian woman to win an Olympic medal.

Since then Merlene has maintained her position at the top of her profession. In 1991 she was named Athlete of the Year by the International Amateur Athletic Association (lAAF) and by Track and Field News, which later ranked her among the top ten track and field athletes for 1993. She won the European Sportswoman of the Year award. But the victory she really wanted, a global outdoor gold medal in the 100 or 200 metres, eluded her.

Many had hoped that the 1992 Barcelona Olympics would have been the highlight of her career. But that was not to be. She was suffering from anaemia, and barely made it into the final round of the 200 metres, placing third. “It seemed that all the energy I had was used up in running the second heat,” she lamented.

Undaunted by her failure to win gold in Spain, she stormed back at Stuttgart the following summer, setting an indoor world record of 21.87 seconds for the 200 metres on the eve of the World Championships. Clearly, she had peaked at the right time and was well prepared to duel in Stuttgart for the two sprint crowns that had eluded her for so many years.

Her first duel was with the American sprinter Gail Devers, and ended in a photo-finish that, heart-breakingly, went against her. Devers commiserated with her and invited her to join her in the victory lap around the Stuttgart stadium.

The second duel, at 200 metres, was with another formidable American, this time the reigning Olympic champion Gwen Torrence, and produced another photo-finish. It was one of the most heart-stopping races in athletic history. In the earlier duel, Merlene had come from behind to challenge Devers, but this time Merlene had the lead and it was Torrence who came storming through, fifteen metres from the finish line, as Merlene felt a pull in her hamstring, stumbled, and lost the beautiful rhythm that had kept her well ahead of the field till then. But she refused to concede, and the American battled with her all the way over those last 15 metres to another nail-biting finish. Merlene felt she had won, but the decision took a long time coming. She watched the big screen in the stadium for what seemed like an eternity. But this time the decision went Merlene’s way: the gold was hers.

For 14 years, Merlene had worked for that moment in Stuttgart, and her two appearances on the victory podium won ovations from the huge crowd. No reception anywhere, however, could compare with her triumphant return to Jamaica. “There was no way I could have been prepared for what I was met with when Stefano (her Italian fiancé) and I stepped off the plane,” she told an interviewer. “It seemed that all two and a half million people were there to greet me.”

For a week, she was honoured in all corners of Jamaica. People composed musical tributes (“you are our champion, you are our star . . . You are our golden lady”). At a gala banquet, she was declared a “national treasure” by a support group, Jamaicans for Merlene, which had been formed long before Stuttgart to develop ways of showing Jamaica’s appreciation. There were youth rallies, civic receptions, concerts; BWIA presented her with a long-term complimentary pass. The Prime Minister appointed her an Ambassador-at-Large, which meant that she was officially titled Her Excellency.

What now?

At almost 34, Merlene has enjoyed a career longer than most sprinters can hope for. She is philosophical about the future: “Age is all in your mind. If you believe you are old, you will act and feel old.” She certainly opened the 1994 season with a bang, setting a new world record – six seconds flat – for the 50 metres at a Moscow indoor meet. But only two other sprinters – Don Quarrie and Linford Christie – have performed at the top level at a similar age, and there have been inevitable thoughts of retirement.

Merlene limits her current goals to the 1994 season: “Let’s take it one year at a time.” After that she will decide whether to look seriously at the 1995 World Championships or the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Her foot injury has healed, though a tender hamstring remains a problem. This year she has her busiest indoor schedule ever, and has been in excellent shape; most of the work is at 60 metres, but she feels she can run the 200 metres in less than 21.60 if conditions are right.

When retirement does come, Merlene is unlikely to be idle. At present she lives in a large and beautiful apartment in Rome. Her fiancé, Stefano Tilli, was ranked number four in the world in 1989 at Merlene’s own distance, 200 metres, and trained with her until a recent operation to repair both Achilles tendons. He oversees Merlene’s training.

A quiet, withdrawn person in private, Merlene is already working with a team of writers on her biography, due for publication later this year. Another project is the Merlene Ottey Sports Development Foundation, which will channel financial support to promising young Jamaican athletes and the track and field activities of Special Olympics in Jamaica. Merlene also has a role with the Jamaica Mutual Life insurance company which is likely to develop, and remains heavily involved with the Jamaican Amateur Athletics Association as an honorary captain of national teams. She is even drawing on her design expertise (her Nebraska degree was in fashion design and merchandising) to work with Puma on their 1995 women’s shoe and apparel lines.

Even more to the point, though she has homes in Rome and California, she recently bought an attractive vacation home on Jamaica’s north coast, not far from Pondside, the village of her birth, where her mother still lives.

Merlene has always insisted that she learned her own tenacity and discipline from her mother. After her Stuttgart victory, asked what she wanted most at that moment, she said she’d like to talk to her mother. Which was asking a lot, since at the time Pondside still had no telephone service.

But her wish was heard, for within a few hours, back in Hanover, Mrs Ottey was presented with a cellular phone by Telecommunications of Jamaica. And later, Merlene was invited to open the first public call-box in Pondside.