It's the lady from Pondside

...and by a country mile

Patrick Robinson

Sunday, February 10, 2019

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Perhaps it is the slight equivocation that you might have detected in Hubert Lawrence's column on Jamaica's “finest female sprinter”, Friday, January 17, 2019, that explains the headline: 'Is Merlene still the greatest?'

There can be no doubt that Merlene Joyce Ottey continues to hold that distinction, despite the notable achievements of Veronica Campbell Brown, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, and more recently Elaine Thompson. Oddly, Lawrence did not include Thompson in his assessment, but how can you not include in the list of Jamaica's greatest a sprinter who completed the double at an Olympics, as she won gold medals in the 100m and 200m at the 2016 Games — a very rare feat these days.

After all, the classic sprint events are the 100m and 200m, and one would have to go as far back as 1988 to find a female sprinter who was a double gold medallist at the Olympics. Should Elaine Thompson repeat this double at the Olympics or World Championships she would more than likely go to the top of the ladder. The other sprint event is the 60m indoor.

An assessment of Jamaica's greatest female sprinter must take into account the fact that Ottey has three distinctions that the other athletes do not possess: She has a “first time”, an “only time”, and a “world's greatest”.

The first time the 60m indoor was run below seven seconds it was done by Ottey. While Veronica Campbell Brown, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Elaine Thompson have run the 60m indoor below seven seconds; Ottey, at 6.96 seconds, has the fastest time of the four, the national record. In an assessment of the kind carried out by Lawrence, while times are important, they are not the only relevant factor. The contextual, historic significance of the times must also be taken into consideration.

Second, Ottey's time of 21.87 seconds for the 200m indoor is the first and only time a woman has run below 22 seconds in that event. This achievement is actually a “first time” and an “only time”, the historic significance of which cannot be overstressed.

Third, Ottey has the distinction of holding what, in my view, is the world's greatest record, male or female, in the history of track and field athletics — the abovementioned 21.87 seconds in the 200m. If she has that distinction it is difficult to see how Veronica Campbell Brown, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, and Elaine Thompson could surpass her as Jamaica's greatest female athlete.

A word about that singular achievement

It is generally agreed that running indoor is exceedingly more difficult than outdoor. First, the traditional 200m indoor track will have two bends as against the single bend in the 200m outdoor event. The bends are sharper and tighter than the single bend in the 200m outdoor. Second, the straightaway at the end of the race is much shorter than the straightaway in the 200m outdoor; in fact, so much shorter that some would say there is none, making the event virtually one long bend of 200m. Third, the air in an indoor arena makes breathing more difficult for athletes. Moreover, the 200m indoor is viewed as such a difficult event that the governing bodies in track and field athletics have had to abandon it.

In light of those factors, it is almost unbelievable that Ottey ran 21.87 seconds for the 200m indoor, equivalent, in my view, to no less than 21.57 seconds outdoor — a time that many would say would warrant being recognised as the current world record.

The significance of this phenomenal achievement is highlighted by a comparison with the number of women who have achieved sub-22 seconds — the benchmark of excellence for the less arduous 200m outdoor. Relatively few women have achieved that standard. For example, in 2018 only two women did so. In fact in the last 30 years there were three occasions when the Olympic gold medal winner did not run sub 22 seconds, and in that period there was one occasion when it was only the gold medallist who ran sub 22 seconds.

The significance of Ottey's time of 21.87 seconds for the 200m indoor is also illustrated by the cold, hard fact that it would have placed her about three metres ahead of Shelly-Ann when she won the 200m gold in 22.17 seconds at the 2013 Moscow World Championships.

Ottey is also the greatest 200m female runner of all time. She ran this event in less than 22 seconds 15 times — a record. Significantly, in the past 15 years the 200m has only been run below 22 seconds 25 times.

Of the four athletes, Ottey's time of 21.64 seconds is the fastest and the national record.

No slouch in the 100m herself, Ottey has run that event below 11 seconds 66 times, while Fraser-Pryce has done it 42 times and Campbell Brown, 49 times. Ottey held the Jamaican record of 10.74 seconds until it was broken by Fraser-Pryce with a time of 10.70 seconds, and equalled by Elaine Thompson in 2016.

No review is complete without mentioning the use of performance-enhancing drugs — that was an epidemic in Ottey's time, and which undoubtedly robbed her of many medals that would have been either gold or silver.

If one is searching for Jamaica's greatest female sprinter one must make an overall assessment of athletic dominance across the three events that constitute sprinting. Therefore, an athlete who only or mainly performs in one or two events must be at a disadvantage in relation to others who perform well in all three.

Here now are my conclusions:

* The best overall times in sprints: Merlene Ottey, holder of the national records in the 60m indoor, the 200m and second best in the 100m.

* The greatest Jamaican 200m runner: Merlene Ottey, who is also the greatest female 200m runner ever.

* The greatest female Jamaican 100m runner: Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who, by virtue of her achievements in the 100m at the Olympics and World Championships, is also the greatest female 100m runner ever.

* Runner-up to the greatest female Jamaican sprinter: Veronica Campbell Brown by virtue of her achievements in the 200m and 100m at several Olympics and World Championships.

* The best strategic run by a Jamaican athlete male or female: Veronica Campbell Brown's gold medal victory in the 200m over Allyson Felix in the Beijing Olympics — as much a triumph of the mental as of the physical. Veronica Campbell Brown's 100m speed versus Allyson Felix 400m strength. She had to use her speed to reach the bend before Felix, and thereafter it was “catch me if you can” and Felix nearly did. But, as we say, “Nearly never kill a bird.”

But the greatest Jamaican female sprinter is the lady from Pondside, and by a country mile – Merlene Joyce Ottey.

What a privilege it is for Jamaicans to ponder who among its daughters is its country's greatest sprinter, and to do so with the assurance that any one of the four individuals being considered is a world beater in a sport in which over 200 countries participate every four years — all this, thanks to the excellent system of sports administration and athletic training we Jamaicans have developed over the past 11 decades in primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions. Yes, we are a talented people.

Patrick Robinson is a judge of the International Court of Justice, The Hague.

PS: It's time the fences are mended so that Jamaica can enjoy the benefit of Merlene Ottey's tremendous experience and knowledge acquired in almost four decades of competitive athletics.

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