PARIS (Reuters) – The greatest French athlete of all time, Marie-Jose Perec will be remembered for gracing the track with her elegant stride, but also for mysteriously walking away from her last Olympics.
Nicknamed ‘the Gazelle’ for her wiry figure and speed, she won the 400 metres gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 before claiming a rare 200-400 metres double four years later in Atlanta.
Perec, born in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe, came to athletics by chance.
“While growing up, I never wanted to become an athlete, never dreamt of it,” said Perec, who turns 52 on Saturday.
“As a kid I was fishing or playing on the sea. Back in Guadeloupe, I didn’t play any sport. It just happened by chance. One of my sports teacher discovered that I was very fast and that is how it started.”
After she won 400m gold at the Tokyo world championships in 1991, her career peaked in 1996, when she was training under the guidance of Jim Smith in a group also featuring sprinters Ato Boldon and Maurice Greene.
She beat Jamaica’s Merlene Ottey to win the 200 metres before crushing the field to prevail in the 400 metres. That second race was, she said, a ‘mere formality’.
Her Olympic record time of 48.25 is still the fourth fastest in history.
The achievement makes Perec one of three athletes to win both the 200 and the 400 metres at the same Games after American Valerie Brisco-Hooks (1984) and the only male athlete to claim both, American Michael Johnson.
She is also with Johnson the only athlete to win two 400 metres Olympic titles.
It went pear-shaped after Atlanta, where her remarkable achievement had somehow been overshadowed by that of Johnson.
Perec sustained several injuries and suffered from the energy-sapping Epstein-Barr virus and she eventually had to skip the 1999 world championships.
She still managed to qualify for the 2000 Games and her 400m showdown with Australian Cathy Freeman was topping the bill of the Sydney Olympics.
Secluded in a hotel outside of the Olympic village, Perec fled Australia amid a media frenzy shortly before the race, claiming a man had forced her way into her hotel room and threatened her.
“In Sydney I thought that I was preparing myself for a 400 metres, and instead I turned up to find I was taking on a whole country,” she said.
“There was so much aggressiveness towards me, it was too much and I cracked.”
Perec retired in 2004 after failing to make a comeback for the 2003 world championships in Paris.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Christian Radnedge)
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