Saturday, August 21, 2004

Merlene Ottey - ageless wonder

The Athens Olympics have been looming on for a week (well actually 10 days now since the football tournament started a few days earlier) and was the occasion for the now familiar arc of the Ghanaian junior football team, the Black Meteors (the senior team are the Black Stars): extravagant heroics, awesome skill - Stephen Appiah's goal against Italy will end up being the goal of the tournament, followed by the unlucky/inexplicable collapse (naivete perhaps) surrendering a 2-goal lead to end up drawing with Italy 2-2; then the sequel, first dominating the game against Paraguay for 70 minutes but then falling behind 1-0 with 15 minutes to go; then the exhilaration, the improbable comeback with 2 goals in 5 minutes setting up the stage for them to be considered favourites in the tournament and needing only one point to progress to the quarter finals (Meteors sure to qualify). As the Telemundo commentators enthusiastically proclaimed: "L'equipo africane esta impressionante". But then the tragedy, losing to Japan (who had already been eliminated!) 1-0 and consequently being eliminated on goal difference by the Italians who had themselves lost to Paraguay. I wasn't in Ghana but I know what this guy means: and Ghana went quiet.

Much has already been said about the awful, jingoistic coverage of NBC: the annoying build-ups chronicling the american athlete's triumph over adversity - perhaps the loss of their pet cat when they were 8 years old - one interviewer actually begun her interview asking "so what did you have to overcome to get to this stage?" The lack of depth of analysis or any real interest in the strategizing in the sports, or the camera staying on the american athlete who finished out of the medals and not even focusing on the Japanese winner let alone interviewing them, instead getting the sob story... argh! but I digresss. At least this year, they are showing more sports on the other channels and sometimes it's even live. As I remember, in Atlanta 1996 there was 5 minutes of coverage of the football tournament and almost nothing was broadcast live even though it was in America.

In any case, track and field is what I focus on and imagine my surprise when I saw Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey running last night. I had a crush on Merlene Ottey back during the 1984 Olympics at Los Angeles - memorable because our circle of three families were stuck with an outbreak of chicken pox and nothing to do but itch, scratch and take in the Olympics. She had that tall, regal and imperious bearing and seemed to glide with fluid movements. Was it the long legs? Was it the butt? hmmm... Or rather what it that she runs the most beautiful bends in the 200 meters - perhaps second only to Evelyn Ashford in the annals of sprinting. She was also labeled as the Silver queen since she never won Olympic Gold (her career was nevertheless illustious)... What got to me is that if you do the math, this must be her 7th (!!!) Olympics. How is it possible to still be competitive? And it turns out that she's competing for Slovenia (how did that happen?).

Of course her story has not gone unnoticed: Sprinter Ottey Doesn't Act Her Age - Much Decorated 7-Time Olympian Continues Chase For Elusive Gold.

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. [..] 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.
The web being what it is there's no surpise that there's a Merlene Ottey fan club (or two) from which I snipped part of her impressive medal history:
Olympic Games (8)
3 silver 1996: 100 m, 200 m; 2000: 4 x 100 m
5 bronze 1980: 200 m; 1984: 100 m, 200 m; 1992: 200 m; 1996: 4 x 100 m

World Championships outdoors (14)
3 gold 1991: 4 x 100 m; 1993: 200 m; 1995: 200 m
4 silver 1983: 200 m; 1993: 100 m; 1995: 100 m, 4 x 100 m
7 bronze 1983: 4x100 m; 1987: 100 m, 200 m; 1991: 100 m, 200 m, 1993: 4x100 m; 1997: 200 m
And so the story continues... I'll be watching with avid interest over the next week.

File under: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hail Merlene, the true Champion.