Marie-Jose Perec’s long strides graced two Olympic Games, and those strides left a tremendous impact on the track and field world. Forget the controversies, ultimately what remains are images of her spectacular performances, those world-beating times and those fluent strides that earned her the nick-name La Gazelle.
The Frenchwoman, hailing from the small island of Guadeloupe, was a superstar of her times and her timings even now place her on a high pedestal in the track and field world. In Bangalore as the Event Ambassador for the World 10K, the 47-year-old spoke to the media about her career, controversies and the issues affecting her sport. Excerpts:
From humble background to stardom, how difficult was the transition?
From my tiny island to Paris, it was a big move. My family supported me without knowing about sport. My mom sometimes told me, "I don't know what pleasure you get from doing these things, but if you're happy, just go. We're behind you."
My parents were supporting me when they did not even understand what I was doing. I'm a very shy person. So in the beginning, it was very hard for me to be placed in this type of life. But at the same time, I also said to myself that for those coming after me, I had to stand up and forget all of this and show them that no matter where you come from or what your life was before you can achieve your dreams. I changed my way of looking at things.
You had tremendous success in major meets, which of your gold medals do you cherish most?
The 200M gold in Atlanta. The 200 was not my speciality; I'm more a 400 runner. It was unexpected. At that time, the athletes running the 200 metres were just amazing. In the heads of a lot of people, this was not something that was possible for me to do, especially when I had won an event before at the same Games. I was only the second woman to do the 200-400 double. When I look back on it sometimes, I feel: "This isn't true. This can't be you." It was incredible. The speed, the technique, everything was there that day. I told my American coach later: "You know, the last 50 metres was so easy that I thought I was walking or running on water." He started to laugh. But that's how I wanted to explain it to him. It was a magic moment. When I think of it, I just feel overwhelmed.
You had a terrific duel with Cathy Freeman in the 400M at Atlanta... Actually, I was very confident of winning that race. It's difficult to win gold medals in the same event in successive Olympic Games. But I was so well prepared that when I started that race I knew that I would win. It seems a little bit overconfident to think or say that but that day, that's the way I felt. "This race is done," I thought. I didn't even worry about it.
How tough was the 200-400 double?
The preparation for this double was very difficult. I was somewhat very stressed. I took the lipstick and I wrote on my mirror the time I wanted to do. I knew that if I did 48 seconds no one could get there. Every morning, every night when I went to brush my teeth, I saw this time. It made me even more scared. This made me do the right thing every day. Months before, when I woke up in the morning, I had butterflies in my stomach. When you want to achieve something, you live with it, you dream of it. It was with me, it was in my skin...
How did you go about your training?
I was with an American coach. I was the only woman in that training group. My coach did not want to train women. He said: "Women, too many problems. I will only have men in my group. I don't want any headaches." But I told him only one thing and he agreed to coach me. I said: ‘Of course I'm a woman but give me a chance. I will do better than all the men you have in your team.’ The first time when I arrived there, they were doing 300M runs. My coach said: "You will do 38 or 37.5" and I ran 36 and 35. The guys were supposed to run 34. If you're a guy and a woman is running 35, what do you do? This was the way I was: when they asked me something, I would do it even better. After a few weeks, these guys started respecting me. They knew I was there just like them, dreaming of something, not to talk.
Sometimes, I was even pushing them. My coach said: "Okay, I think I have the right person in my group," and started laughing. I needed this hard competition. Training with people who have the same dream as you, you raise each other's levels.
With many doping cases cropping up, there is a lot of negativity around athletics...
I don’t see it this way because what I like about track and field is that if you hear that someone has tested positive it is because they are doing their jobs and they are having controls. I don’t think everybody dopes but I know that some individuals are doing it. But I think in many sports, they don’t have strict controls because they don’t want bad news coming out. I think in athletics it is very good what they are doing because when someone is caught, we talk about it and we also tell the kids. We are ambassadors for IAAF so we go and talk to the kids and tell them, “see he has done that. You should not do it and you can do this without taking drugs.”
When you win a race and you know that you took something, it is like you are lying to yourself. You don’t exactly do what your body can give you. I did not grow up like that. My parents would have killed me if I had done something like that. I would have never put my family at such a place where they can’t walk with their heads held high. Everybody don’t have this type of education and we are here to teach them that this is not right. What is interesting in sport is that if you start from Point A and go to Point B and you know that it is 100 percent you. This is what you accomplished. If you cheat, then at the end of the day you don’t even know exactly how many percent is yours in the accomplishment.
Is weeding out doping the responsibility of the athlete or that of the federation?
I think it is the responsibility of everyone. The federation has to do their job and the parents also have to do their job. It is your kids and you have to talk to your kids. I think everyone out there has part of the responsibility. The coaches, there are some who give products to the athletes. I remember my grandma, who was above 80, didn’t know anything about sports but she knew all my times. I could not understand how she could because this was not her life.
In the beginning of my career, she saw me on TV and I arrived at the finish line and someone gave me a bottle of water and I drank it. When I finish a race I always call my family and talk to them, so I called my grandma and she said, ‘That’s nice. Good job. Let me tell you something, people don’t drink from bottles like that. You don’t know where this bottle came from!’
Then I thought to myself, ‘I am 20 years old. It is not her job to tell me that. I have to take my place and stand on my own feet and think about what I am doing because I might get into problems just because I am not aware of what I am doing.’ You see, you don’t have to be in sport to teach your kids how to behave.
Later in your career, you went to the coach of Marita Koch, Wolfgang Meier, to train. Do you regret that, considering the cloud of doubt over the athletes from that part of the world?
You don’t know how much I learned with Wolfgang Meier! People did not understand at that time why I went there. For me I knew that these people did not only use drugs, these people, back then, had all the great coaches and this is why I chose to go there. I always heard that Marita Koch was someone very talented and she was coached very well, but they said that this country was using drugs. So when I decided to leave California, where it is sunny, hot and beautiful, and go to train in Rostock, where it was cold, sometimes even -20 degrees, and people were like ‘Why is she doing this?’
We all have our own way of doing things. I think if Meier was in North pole, I would have gone there because I had decided that it was that person who should coach me to do what I wanted to do.
I changed many coaches and learned a lot from them all but it was amazing what they did during practice. I did some training I would not even have thought my body could do. Like the first session he was telling to run 15-20 times a certain distance and I was thinking my body can’t do that. Maximum I do is seven races in a session. Then I discovered that I could do something that I could not even imagine. I can only say that human being is incredible because there are things that we can achieve and sometimes we don’t even know about it. We need to have someone who will bring us and say ‘Ok here we go.’
If you had not been an athlete, what would you have been?
When I was a kid I actually dreamt of travelling. I wanted to get out of my small island. I guess most of the kids there dream of going out because it was so tiny that we all wanted to go out. But you know what, after I travelled all around the world, I realised actually my tiny island was a paradise.