Defying age in the sprinting lane

50-year-old Merlene Ottey is in no mood to discard her running shoes

Defying age in the sprinting lane

Merlene Ottey, Jamaican-born Slovenian sprinter, has not lost one ounce of her love for the sport even after spending 30 years at the top level. AFP

The graceful, Jamaican-born 50-year-old, who has been sprinting for adopted country Slovenia since 2002, took bronze in the 200 metres at the 1980 Moscow Games; three decades and 33 more major medals later she took part in the 4x100M relay at the European championships in Barcelona.

Ottey could not produce a vintage performance as Slovenia failed to progress into the final round, ending 14th overall.

"I think as long as I can run I will run," Ottey, clad in blue jeans, a white shirt and sparkly sandals, told Reuters in the lobby of her hotel in the Catalan capital. "There are masters competitions going on so it's not like I'm the oldest person out there," she added. "The problem is that competing with people of my age doesn't do me any good at the moment as I am a few metres faster than them, so what can I do?” Ottey's haul of nine Olympic medals is more than any other woman's in track and field, although she never won gold, missing out on the 100 metres title in Atlanta in 1996 to American Gail Devers by 0.005 seconds.

Known as "the Queen of the Track", she became the oldest athlete to compete at a European championships.

"It's good that at my age I can still make a relay team," she said. "And I know I'm not the slowest out there so that gives me some pleasure.”

Although the team failed to qualify for the final, the remarkably youthful-looking Ottey was excited to have made history and even refused to rule out an appearance at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

"Yeah, it's a great feeling," she said. "I find it a challenge and it's a joy competing against people younger than me.  I guess it's my genes. I try to push myself to the limit. This is how I get my adrenalin."

"I don't see the end at the moment," she said. "My goal now is to try to qualify for the world championships. As for the Olympics, ask me after the worlds.”
Jamaica has produced an outstanding crop of sprinters in recent years, with triple Olympic champion Usain Bolt sweeping all before him in the men's events and Shelly-Ann Fraser (100), Veronica Campbell-Brown (200) and Melanie Walker (400 hurdles) also taking Olympic gold in Beijing two years ago.

Ottey, whose relationship with Jamaica soured after she was told to make way for younger talent, said the country's sports infrastructure was much more developed now. "I think it's excellent because when I was running it was just me alone," she said. "Now we are proving that we can produce more than one and dominate. The country is behind them and there's a lot more money in sports. They are getting the money and the support and people can afford to focus on the sport in school and train and they get the results. It looks good for the future because the younger athletes are more motivated." Ottey, who ran 11.67 seconds this month compared with a personal best of 10.74 set in Milan in 1996, was disappointed that Slovenia did not do well at the meet. "I knew right away that we didn't qualify so I was disappointed," she said.

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