Merlene Ottey, legend who decorated the track in a blazing career | Sunday Observer

Merlene Ottey, legend who decorated the track in a blazing career

11 September, 2022
At Stuttgart 1993 World Championships
At Stuttgart 1993 World Championships

Merlene Ottey is a legendary sprinter. She had the longest career as an elite athlete from 1979 to 2012, spanning thirty-four blazing years. Ottey holds the record for the most appearances of seven at the Olympic Games by any athlete. She took part at Moscow 1980, Los Angeles 1984, Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000, and Athens 2004. She represented Jamaica from 1978 to 2002, before representing Slovenia from 2002 to 2012.

Her world record of 21.87 in 200m indoor, set in 1993 still stands. It is indeed the only sub 22 seconds clocked by a woman indoor. Ottey’s Olympic record of three silvers, five bronzes, two fourths, one fifth, one sixth and one eighth place make her the ‘Greatest Female Olympic Track and Field Athlete of All Time,’ despite not reaching the top of the podium, according to statistician Mark Butler.

She first appeared at the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico aged 19 years and 61 days, and concluded her career as a top level sprinter, aged 52 years and 51 days at the 2012 European Championships in Helsinki. She is ranked fourth on the all-time list over indoor 60m with 6.96, seventh over 100m with 10.74 and fourth over 200m with 21.64.

Her career achievements and longevity led to her being called the “Queen of the Track.” Her proclivity for earning bronze medals (15 out of 30) at the Olympics and World Championships earned her the title of “Bronze Queen” in track circles. She was inducted in Nebraska’s first Athletics Hall of Fame Class in 2015. She stood 175 cm (5 ft 9 in) and weighed 62 kg (137 lb).

Ottey has been named the ‘Jamaican Sportswoman of the Year’ a record thirteen times, between 1979 and 1995. No person has won the award more. She held the record for the most World Championship medals, winning 14 (three gold, four silver, seven bronze) between 1983 and 1997 and still holds the record for most medals in individual events with ten.

Life and Career

Merlene Joyce Ottey was born on May 10, 1960, to Hubert and Joan Ottey in Cold Spring, Hanover, Jamaica. She was introduced to athletics by her mother, who bought her a Manual on Track and Field.In her early years, Ottey attended Gurneys Mount and Pondside Schools before graduating from Rusea’s and Vere Technical High Schools.

Ottey’s inspiration came from listening to the broadcast of Montreal 1976 Olympic Games, where Donald Quarrie won medals in the sprint double. At the 1978 CAC Junior Championships in Xalapa, Mexico, she won a bronze in 200m in 25.34, gold in 4x100m relay in 47.12 and a silver in 4x400m relay in 3:58.8. At the 1979 CARIFTA Games in Kingston, Jamaica, she won a silver 100m in 11.87, silver in 200m in 24.05 and a silver 4x100m relay in 46.47.

Her athletics career took off when she moved to the United Statesin 1979 and attended the University of Nebraska, where she joined the track team. She won fourteen individual national titles and earned 24 All-America awards, both of which are the most by any Husker student-athlete.

She won her first medals - a bronze in 200m clocking 22.79 and a silver in 4x100m in 44.18 representing Jamaica in the 1979 Pan American Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Ottey won multiple NCAA titles in her all five seasons, including four combined indoor and outdoor titles in 1981 and five in 1982. She earned multiple All-America accolades in each of her five seasons, with six combined All-America awards in 1980, five in 1981 and seven in 1982.

Ottey was also a member of Nebraska’s indoor national championship teams in 1982, 1983 and 1984. She still holds Nebraska’s top indoor marks in the 55m and 200m and the top outdoor marks in the 100m and 200m. She graduated from the University with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Since 2014, Ottey has lived in Switzerland.

Moscow 1980 Olympic Games

In the Moscow 1980 Olympics, Ottey became the first female English-speaking Caribbean athlete to win an Olympic medal. She won a bronze in 200m clocking 22.20. Also, her Jamaican 4x100m relay team finished sixth clocking 43.19. She was part of Jamaican 4x400m relay team as well.

In the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia, Ottey won a gold medal in the 200m in 22.19, a silver medal in the 100m clocking 11.03 and a bronze in 4x100m in 43.69. At the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, she won a silver in 200m with 22.19, a bronze in 4x100m in 42.73 and was fourth in 100m clocking 11.19.

Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games

At the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics, she won a bronze in 100m clocking 11.16 and a second bronze in 200m in 22.09 and her Jamaican team finished eighth in 4x100m.

At the 1987 World Indoor Championships in Indianapolis, United States, she won a silver in 200m in 22.66 and was fourth in 60m clocking 7.13.At the 1987 World Championships in Rome, Italy, she won bronze medals in sprint double, 100m with 11.04 and 200m with 22.06.

Seoul 1988 Olympic Games

At Seoul 1988 Olympics, she did not do well clocking 11.03 in 100m, 21.99 in 200m to finish in fourth place and her team clocked 43.30 in 4x100m.

At 1989 World Indoor Championships in Budapest, Hungary, she won a gold in 200m with 22.34 and a bronze in 60m clocking 7.10.At the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand, she won gold medals in both sprints, 100m clocking 11.02 and 200m clocking 22.76.

At the 1991 World Indoor Championships in Seville, Spain, she won a gold in 200m with a time of 22.24 and a silver in 60m clocking 7.08.At the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, Japan, she won a bronze in 100m clocking 11.06, bronze in 200m clocking 22.21 and her Jamaican team won a gold in 4x100m in 41.94.

Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games

At the Barcelona 1992 Olympics, she won a bronze in 200m clocking 22.09 and was fifth in 100m clocking 10.88. Her Jamaican team did not do well in 4x100m.

At the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, she won a gold in 200m with 21.98, a silver in 100m clocking 10.82, and a bronze in 4x100m clocking 41.94. The closest finish at international athletics meet took place at these 1993 World Championships in 100m with Gail Devers and Merlene Ottey recording 10.811 and 10.812 respectively.

Ottey was named an ambassador at Large by the Jamaican government in 1993.At the 1994 World Cup in London, United Kingdom, she secured the gold medal in 200m with a time of 22.23. At the 1995 World Indoor Championships in Barcelona, Spain, she won a gold in 60m with a time of 6.97.

At the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, she won a gold in 200m clocking 22.12, a silver in 100m clocking 10.94, and a silver in 4x100m clocking 42.25.At these 1995 World Championships, Ottey became the oldest ever female gold medallist when she won the 200m at age 35 years 92 days.

Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games

At the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, she won a silver medal in 100m in 10.94, a silver in 200m in 22.24 and her team a bronze in 4x100m clocking 42.24. She missed an Olympic gold medal in the 100m final, by just five thousandths of a second to Gail Devers, after they both recorded the same time of 10.94.

At the 1997 World Championships in Athens, Greece, she won a bronze in 200m with 22.40 and was seventh in 100m clocking 11.29. At these 1997 World Championships, she became the oldest female medallist ever at 37 years 90 days, when she won the bronze in 200m. At the 1998 Goodwill Games in New York City, United States, she was fourth in 100m clocking 11.21.

In 1998, Ottey moved to Slovenia and began training with Slovene coach Srdan Dordevic but continued to represent Jamaica.

In 1999, during a competition in Lucerne, Switzerland, a urine sample submitted by Ottey had returned positive for the banned anabolic steroid nandrolone. Her ‘B’ sample also contained higher than normal levels of the substance. Ottey was subsequently banned by the IAAF from competing in the World Championships in Seville, Spain.

Ottey fought to clear her name, asserting that charge was a “terrible mistake,” and that she was innocent of knowingly taking steroids. In 2000, Ottey was cleared of all charges by the Jamaica Amateur Athletic Association whilst the IAAF lifted its two-year ban, after the Court of Arbitration for Sport, dismissed the case.

Sydney 2000 Olympic Games

In the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, Ottey at 40, became the oldest female track and field medallist when she anchored the Jamaican 4x100m to a bronze medal in 42.13, later advanced to a silver. The Jamaican team comprised of Tayna Lawrence, Veronica Campbell, Beverly McDonald and was anchored by Ottey. This medal gave Ottey her eighth Olympic medal, the most ever for a female athlete.

Besides at the 2000 Olympics, Ottey finished fourth in the individual 100m. The race was won by Marion Jones, who registered 10.75, followed by Ekaterini Thanou of Greece in 11.12, Tayna Lawrence of Jamaica posted 11.18 to Ottey’s 11.19. With the disqualification of Marion Jones for steroid abuse, Ottey’s fourth place in 100m was retroactively promoted to third, giving Ottey her ninth Olympic medal as well as making her the oldest individual medallist.

Athens 2004 Olympic Games

In May 2002, she became a Slovene citizen, and resided in Ljubljana, and represented her new country in international events. Ottey at 34, competed for Slovenia at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. In 100m, she reached the semi-finals and her 11.21, missed qualification for the final by just 0.03s. Her timing in 200m heats was 22.72.

At the 2003 World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, United Kingdom, she won a bronze in 60m clocking 7.20. At the 2003 World Championships in Paris, France, she took part in 100m, 200m and 4x100m but could not reach final in any of the events. She could not perform well in 60m even at the 2004 World Indoor Championships in Budapest, Hungary.

At the 2006European Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, she was forty-six, and she did not qualify for the final, finishing tenth among semi-finalists in 100m,clocking 11.44.

At the 2007 European Indoor Championships in Birmingham, United Kingdom, she finished nineteenth in 60m clocking 7.33. At the World Championships in Osaka, Japan, she was thirty-eighth in 100m clocking 11.64.

In 2008, aged 48, Ottey failed in her quest to qualify for her eighth Olympics in Beijing 2008, by a mere 0.28 seconds.

At 2010 European Championships in Barcelona, Spain, her team was thirteenth in 4x100min 44.30. At these Championships, Ottey, aged fifty, became the oldest athlete ever to participate in the history of the European Championships.

At 2012 European Championships in Helsinki, Finland, aged fifty-two, she took part in the 4x100m relay and her team ended eleventh. The Slovenian team were ranked twenty-second in the world before the London 2012 Olympics and only the top sixteen teams qualified for the relay.

Recordsand Achievements

Ottey is the first female athlete to run 60m under seven seconds (6.96 in 1992). Ottey is also the only woman to run the 200m under 22 seconds indoors (21.87 in 1993), establishing a new world record that lasts to date. Ottey has the fastest 100m and 200m one day combination, with 10.93 and 21.66 (32.59 total) at the 1990 Weltklasse, Zurich Grand Prix.

Ottey has run 100m under 11 seconds – 67 times, a record among female sprinters. Ottey has run 200m under 22 seconds - 18 times, another record among female sprinters. Ottey has fifty-seven consecutive wins in 100m – the most over 100m for a female, and thirty-four consecutive wins at 200m. Ottey has the quickest 200m ever into a headwind (-1.0m/sec or more) achieved clocking 21.66 (-1.0) in Zurich, 1990.

Ottey holds the World Masters Athletics world records in the 100m and 200m for the age groups W35 (100m - 10.74 in 1996, 200m - 21.93 in 1995), W40 (100m - 10.99 in 2000, 200m - 22.74 in 2004), W45 (100m - 11.34 in 2006, 200m - 23.82 in 2006), W50 (100m - 11.67 in 2010, 200m - 24.33 in 2010).

Ottey is the first from the Western Hemisphere (outside the USA) to win two individual medals at the same Olympics. Ottey was the first female Caribbean athlete to win an Olympic medal. Her seven Olympic appearances from 1980 to 2004 are the second most by any Track and Field athlete. Ottey along with Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt and Allyson Felix, is one of four athletes to win twenty or more medals at the Olympic Games and the World Championships combined.

In seven Olympics Ottey has earned three silver and six bronze medals while in six World Championships, she won fourteen- three gold, four silver and seven bronze medals. Her medals at World Indoor include three gold, two silver and two bronze. Thus, her total Olympic and World medal tally is thirty which include six gold, nine silver and fifteen bronze.


Legends live forever. The blazing sprinting career of Merlene Ottey lasted 34 long and memorable years. Professor Richard Davidson, a Professor of Exercise Physiology, believe Ottey is simply an exception:“There is no research to suggest that we can slow down the ageing process through exercise. However, if you keep fit and flexible then in some cases it is clearly possible to still be at a high level.”

Nonetheless, like Ottey there have been sporting greats who have refused to let age dictate to them. However, such longevity is almost unheard of in sprinting as muscle mass is harder to maintain as the body gets older. The big question is how Ottey motivated herself to continue.

Professor Davidson clarified: “The mental factor plays a big part in sport with older athletes. When you have been there and done it, motivation can be tougher. But you also have experience and know how to peak mentally and physically. And most importantly you know what it takes, and feels like, to win.”

In 1990, Ottey was selected the ‘World Athlete of the Year’ and the ‘Track & Field News Athlete of the Year.’ Merlene Ottey is styled “The Honourable” with the conferment of the National Award ‘Order of Jamaica,’ “OJ” by Jamaica in 2020. She had been bestowed the ‘Order of Distinction,’ “CD,” earlier in 1980. So, the Honourable Merlene Ottey, OJ, CD.

(The author is an Associate Professor, International Scholar, winner of Presidential Awards and multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil, and double MSc. His email is [email protected])