Undici in partnership with Puma Eyewear presents #NoCage, a collection of 12 stories of past and contemporary athletes that have changed the history of sports, overcoming the barriers and obstacles in their path thanks to determination and willpower.
“Those who are born fast, stay fast for life.” This is the paradoxical mantra that Merlene Ottey has always repeated, and whispered to herself for the umpteenth time in June 2012. At 52, she had carved out a place in the European Athletics meet in Finland, participating in the 4 woman 100m relay with the Slovenian national team. In 2002, she had abandoned her native Jamaica to make a home in Ljubljana, relying on the expert care of her trainer Srdjan Djordievic. Taking refuge in the Balkans was the only way to stay in a national team, exorcising the looming approach of the civil registry and continually postponing her farewell to the limelight of major international competition. Moreover, she still runs the hundred meters in 11.82 seconds, which is fast enough to tackle a relay lap head-on. In Finland, Slovenia failed to win the final, but the Finnish public honored Merlene with warm ovations. Apart from an imperceptible stiffening of her body, Ottey has remained the same explosive girl of her early years. The girl who, in 1980 – when all the other European Championship participants were yet to be born –, conquered the bronze medal at the Moscow Olympics in the 200 meters.
Showing the world her wild, yet harmonious strides, lithe body, statuesque lineaments and dark, deep gaze, she was the on-track epiphany of a Caribbean deity, like those worshipped by the rural communities of her native Jamaica. Born in 1960 in Cold Spring on the northwest coast of the island, Ottey was the fourth of seven children. Her father, a security guard, died in 1979, just before he got the chance to bear proud testimony as his daughter conquered her first prestigious medal. Living a childhood worthy of her country’s school of neorealist cinema, every day she would run five miles on rough dirt roads, dodging free ranging donkeys, goats and poultry just to get to class. At school, everything seemed to revolve around the hour of physical education, often at the expense of mathematics and spelling, because the clay court behind the school building was the place where you learned to run fast, faster than the others. And at stake was the chance to go to college or university in the nearby United States, thereby avoiding the inevitability of a future of poverty and marginalization. Merlene took the hint and sprinted with decisive intent, arriving at the University of Nebraska ready to engage in art and design. But she never stopped running: her natural talent would be polished and disciplined by American coaches, and while she was quickly seduced by Michelangelo and Chagall in lecture halls, for Ottey, the real work of art would be her compatriot, Don Quarrie.
As she watched him flickering from the TV in 1976, with his sideburns and the frizzy hair of blaxploitation, the sprinter from Kingston showed an amazing progression on the Canadian track. Seeing him burn up the 200 meter track at breakneck speed to win the Olympic gold in Montreal, Merlene saw her destiny. She would be wrong, in part, as after her promising bronze in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, the Cold Spring girl would go on to participate in six other editions of the Olympics, but would never conquer the joy of a gold, earning her bittersweet fame as the beautiful loser. For her style, beauty and charisma, Merlene would immediately be seen as the female doppelgänger of Carl Lewis, the melancholy son of the wind, but her fate as an eternal favorite would rest heavily on her, like a bad spell, leading to years of hard-nosed, introverted life. Losing first place for but a breath, complaining of the prodigious, and at times suspect, improvements of her rivals, she highlighted the reality of athletics that came out of pharmacies, pulling her hand from the hypocritical handshakes of “doped” rivals like the German, Katrin Krabbe.
In the world of athletics, Merlene would end up taking on the sarcastic title of the bronze lady, for that golden podium that she somehow always lost sight of in the final sprints. Her fiercest rival was a sprinter from Seattle six years her junior, none other than the African American Gail Devers. Having beaten Graves’ disease, Devers was left with the visual legacy of hyperthyroid eyes, while sharp almost cannibalistic smile and curved vampire-like claws completed her profile as a recurring nightmare for Ottey. The saga began at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. At stake was the title for speed between the US giant and the small Caribbean island. Five athletes sprinted out a hundred meters, as fast as lightning. The arrival was confused, with Devers, Torrence, the Privalova and Cuthbert all coming up alongside Ottey at the finish line.As soon as they have crossed the finish line, the gaze of all five athletes fixed the scoreboard, although this would never erase the doubts surrounding the actual final classification. The replay was repeated endlessly, but nobody could solve the mystery. Even the photo finish was ambiguous, and the blown up image did not clarify the ambiguity of the image captured in the last frame – which would be interpreted with a guess-work approach by the jury. Devers was awarded first place, while Merlene found herself fifth in the fastest race in history, with all five athletes crossing the line in under ten seconds and ninety.
Women’s 100m final at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics
A year later, at the World Championships in Stuttgart, Merlene showed up with polished quadriceps. Devers set off like a rocket, possessed as always. Marlene stalls at the departure but manages to minimize the damage, catching up with and then flanking the American. The replays and the photo finish are repeated in loop, just like the year before, to dissipate any doubt. Both runners the time is 10 and 82. The jury opts to crown the American, but Jamaica is there and submits an official complaint. Nonetheless, it is all in vain: the spasmodic photo finish analysis would show that Devers’ bony shoulder, leaning forward, is the first body fragment to plow the finish line, making Ottey pay for her elegant posture, which she maintained until the last breath. The cannibal from Seattle was crowned yet again, for a thousandth of a second. But it is precisely during the German World Cup that Merlene would be awarded her first, official consecration, thirteen years after her first appearance in the international arena. She would also confront the two hundred meters, trying to rid herself of the atavistic nightmares, and title of incomplete magnificence. Her departure is scorching, in defiance of every calculation and any thoughtful strategy. It is as if she wished to shorten the agony or quell an inner torment, or rid herself of that crippling shyness, that reserved, composed attitude, which seems to keep her from killing her races, from proudly showing her overt superiority. She seems to be stuck in the painful legacy of her nation’s ethnic memory, as a Jamaican, a descendant of slaves, there is an obscure malaise that clings to her heart and thighs, preventing her from snubbing her opponent, from leaving her behind.
Silke Gladisch (centre) of East Germany on the podium after the 200m with Merlene Ottey of Jamaica (right) and Florence Griffith Joyner of the USA (left) during the World Championships at the Olympic Stadium in Rome. Gladisch won Gold (Tony Duffy/Allsport)
In training, she has always been prodigiously flexible, full of grace. Tending towards a spirit-like weightlessness, with the soul of her shoe barely beating the ground, seemingly teasing the force of gravity. In the race, however, she has never been able to run as she knows how to run, except for some stretches, giving us intermittent flashes of class. Often she appeared heavy, affected by slightly peremptory departures, but on that day in Stuttgart, she came out of the first curve holding her head high, like a queen who suddenly remembers who she is. Her gold pendant earrings fluttering in the wind, the dark mass of hair that flows in rhythmic waves and her shiny amber skin wrapped in a skin-tight green and gold Jamaican costume, come together in a dazzling vision. The others almost appear to trudge behind, reduced to harmlessness. Then, in the last forty meters, the fluidity of Merlene’s rhythm cracks, once again she has given too much in the first hundred meters. She stiffens and slows, while Torrence gains ground behind her, prospecting the grim possibility of another dramatic photo finish. But this time, Merlene withstands the onslaught, winning at last. Her first real title, a pure gold medal.
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Although less prestigious than an Olympic medal, which would remain elusive, but enough, to feel like a champion. A celebration to share with her man and coach, the sprinter from Orvieto, Stefano Tilli, the first to be amazed by the mysterious prodigy with whom he lives. He ponders the victory with the analytical love of an entomologist: «Merlene is methodical, punctual and serious, but is as stubborn as marble. The real disappointment is that there seems to be no correlation between her head and her motor skills. She does not listen to her muscles, to what they have to tell her. She does extreme exercises that would kill any normal athlete, exercises that I would never dare to do. She elongates and twists her muscles every day during an hour and a half of stretching. And she doesn’t really need to do it, because she has the flexibility of a cat. The Jamaican population is incredible. It is genetically carved out of its own history, from survival to slavery. If you do a biopsy on their muscles, there you will find a staggering number of fast fibers. That grow even if they are trained badly. We Italians study the weight bearing time like crazy, and the physio-mechanical dynamics, to try to squeeze the most out of an athlete. Then one looks at the Jamaicans and discover that they do nothing. They are born like this, and strengthened by their frugal, yet protein-rich diet of chicken, eggs, fish and legumes, which stimulate the growth hormone. That’s why Jamaica, which has the same number of inhabitants as Rome, is crowded with awe-inspiring sprinters like Merlene».
Merlene Ottey in the 1993 World Championships
In 1996, Merlene would find her nemesis at the Atlanta Olympics. In the women’s final of the 100 meters, she and Devers devoured the finish line in tandem, cheering wildly and hugging each other with undisguised resentment as they raised their eyes to the great stadium’s scoreboard. In a replay, they both seem to be the shadow of the other, no light filters through – their bodies appear cast as one. The home crowd cheers on Devers loudly, and once again, the photo finish appears to be inconclusive. The jury would state that the American sprinter was five-thousandths of a second faster than Ottey, and all the Jamaican could do was resign herself once again to the merciless cruelty of the photoelectric cells. A year later, at the World Championships in Athens, Ottey would be thirty-seven, but was still in great shape and ready to face the last truly important hundred meters of her career. After the start, however, she failed to hear the second shot that signals a false start. Perhaps because she was too far away, in the outside lane, or perhaps because she had already set sail for somewhere deep inside her soul. Thus, she set off on a lonely, crazed race, giving her all, floating in a trance to another dimension while her rivals stared on in disbelief from the starting blocks. Reopening her half-closed eyes after seventy meters, Merlene felt the drama, stopped and turned back, proceeding, solemnly regal, in what may have seemed to be an illuminated salute to the stadium’s great curves.
Then, in 1999, she stumbled on Nandrolone, an anabolic drug that dilates the muscles to improve performance. It would prove to be a fatal blow to the champion of clean blood and a fair race, but she pleaded innocence. Or perhaps, it was the threshold of her fortieth birthday that allowed Faustian temptation to creep up on her, or the desire to win the coveted Olympic gold, beyond her time, or conquer the empyrean dream of immortality and repeal the unjust laws of biology. One year later the disqualification is canceled by Iaaf, she would continue for many years in her eagerness to last, to stay on track. Continuing to lug her athletics bag between airports, hotels, tracks and meetings around the world, from Osaka to Montecarlo, always passing through Ljubljana, she claimed record seniority in the World and European championships, and Olympic Games, but always with a stubborn, veiled sense of disenchantment à la Jackie Brown. Feeding her infinite novel, she constantly shifted the levels of her paradoxical challenge between speed and persistence – continuing to repeat herself, isolated within herself, in the clamor of the stadiums, “Those who are born fast, stay fast for life.”