washingtonpost.com  > Sports > Leagues and Sports > Olympics > 2004 > Sport-by-Sport > Track and Field

Sprinter Ottey Doesn't Act Her Age

Much Decorated 7-Time Olympian Continues Chase For Elusive Gold

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2004; Page D13

ATHENS, Aug. 20 -- It's not just that Merlene Ottey is old at 44; it's that she's 44 and an Olympic sprinter. It's not just she's 44 and sprinting; she ran the second-fastest time Friday in the first round of qualifying. It's not just that at 44 she has sprinted into the Olympic semifinals in the 100 meters; it's that she's running past women less than half her age, teenagers who were born after she had competed in her second Olympic Games.

Ottey was pleading with reporters here earlier this week not to make age an issue.

"For me, it's amazing that I've qualified to still be running," said Marlene Ottey, a native of Jamaica who is running for Slovenia, her adopted home. (Anja Niedringhaus -- AP)

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But of course, she made age an issue, by being the oldest track and field athlete in the Games, by redefining what is possible for a woman in her mid-forties. As Kim Gevaert, a 26-year-old Belgian sprinter said of Ottey: "She could be, like, my mom. My mom is only a couple of years older, and I don't see my mom out here."

Nobody can get past her age, and probably nobody should.

When she ran 11.14 Friday morning and finished second in her heat, it meant Ottey officially had competed in her seventh Olympics. We're talking Moscow in 1980, Los Angeles in '84, Seoul in '88, Barcelona in '92, Atlanta in '96, Sydney four years ago and now Athens. Thirty of the 63 women competing in the 100 here were born after Ottey made her first Olympic appearance. There has to be a portrait of her aging in an attic someplace because she looks like she moves, like someone half her age. And with world class competitors including Marion Jones, Kelli White, Torri Edwards and Katerina Thanou out of the field for one reason or another, Ottey has a chance to win a ninth Olympic medal. She's already the oldest Olympic medalist in track and field.

And while Olympic tennis player Martina Navratilova is older at 47, it's easy to argue the 100 meters trumps doubles tennis. The 100 meters requires the extreme burst one never has associated with age. So, four years after being essentially told she was too old to continue running by the officials in her native Jamaica, Ottey is back as a citizen of Slovenia, where she was living much of the year to train with her coach. It was impossible to miss during the second round of qualifying Friday night the irony of her qualifying by running in a lane between Sherone Simpson and Aleen Bailey, both Jamaicans.

"For me, it's amazing that I've qualified to still be running," Ottey said. "I didn't think I'd still be here 24 years later. The first time I was aware of the Olympics was 1976. I listened to it on radio; I didn't have a TV. I wanted to know, 'What is all this fuss about?' And they told me Jamaica was winning. I said, 'Oh great, I want to be in the next Olympics.' "

She won bronze in the 1980 Games in Moscow, followed by two bronze medals in 1984, followed by bronze in '92, followed by one bronze and two silvers in '96, followed by a silver in the 4x100 relay in Sydney four years ago. It seems rather silly now that her third-place finishes over the years saddled her with the nickname "Bronze Queen" especially since the women running against her now don't seem to be affected by the fact that she hasn't won Olympic gold.

"Her name is like a myth," Belgium's Gevaert said. "Every girl of my age [interested in sprinting] looked up to her, kind of like a role model. And now we're out here all the years later trying to beat her. It's amazing."

In Atlanta eight years ago, at the rather advanced age of 36, Ottey lost the gold medal to Gail Devers by five-thousandths of a second. Ask Ottey to name her favorite sprinter, and she says without hesitation, "Gail Devers, because I always lose to her."

Friday, she qualified 11th in the second round; Devers was the 16th and last to make the semifinal field.

As Ottey concluded a round of interviews Friday and headed to the dressing room, Austria's Bettina Mueller, herself 31, said of Ottey: "I wish I can look like her at 44. I want to be able to move at all at 44. My whole body is already hurting. She's amazing. Years ago when I started in athletics, she is the sprinter I liked the most. And I've always liked her as a woman. She's so mature. She's cooler than all the young sprinters."

Ottey isn't just technically old enough to be the mother of, say, 18-year-old Armenian sprinter Marine Ghazaryan; there's enough of an age difference for Ghazaryan to be Ottey's third child in her second marriage.

"I eat oatmeal [for breakfast], maybe bread and cheese," Ottey said. "I don't eat that much, and I can eat the same things over and over. I just love running. Once you love something you can put up with all the torture. I have a passion for it. When I finish, maybe I'll leave my body for tests."

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