On night of golden efforts, Ottey earns her elusive crown

August 20, 1993|By Phil Hersh | Phil Hersh,Chicago Tribune

STUTTGART, Germany -- It was a night to be savored by the first sellout crowd of these nine-day World Track and Field Championships.

They saw pole-vaulter Sergei Bubka of Ukraine become the only athlete to win four straight world titles, Sally Gunnell of Great Britain set a world record of 52.74 seconds in the 400-meter hurdles and Kevin Young of the United States reassert his dominion in the men's 400 hurdles.

Yet, for the 52,700 who came to Gottfried Daimler Stadium, it was mostly a night to celebrate the long-awaited triumph of a Jamaican sprinter.

Fourteen seasons after she began a brilliant career in the sport, three days after she had lost the 100 meters by one-third of an inch and one-thousandth of a second, Merlene Ottey finally had the championship gold medal she had despaired of ever winning.

It came in yesterday's 200 meters, when Ottey, 33, desperately held onto a dwindling lead to beat surly Gwen Torrence of Atlanta by 6 inches and .02 seconds, with Irina Privalova of Russia third. Ottey's winning time was 21.98 seconds.

"I wanted to win this race so badly," Ottey said. "I don't know if I will have another chance to compete in the World Championships."

Ottey had competed in the previous three outdoor world meets, winning five bronze medals in the 100 and 200 meters. She also had competed in the past four Olympics, winning four bronzes in the same events.

She once won 59 straight 100-meter finals and 36 straight 200-meter finals. Oddly, none was in an Olympics or outdoor worlds, the two biggest meets in the sport.

"I'm just happy after 14 years I was able to stay patient and believe I can do it," she said.

BHer belief was sorely tested by the photo-finish defeat in the 100 meters, which Ottey still thinks she won. Less than 12 hours after that result became official, she had to be back on the track for first-round heats of the 200.

Torrence, 1992 Olympic champion in the 200, kept her thoughts to herself, refusing to attend a post-race news conference, just as she had done after winning the bronze in the 100. Torrence's bad manners were in sharp contrast to Ottey's graciousness in accepting the 100-meter defeat.

Torrence's absence could not detract from Ottey's presence. This shy, elegant daughter of a poor night watchman has been called the "Caribbean Queen" of track and field.

"I think in Jamaica they are all in the streets," Ottey said. "They have waited so long with me to win. The celebration may go the rest of the week or maybe into next."

Or maybe until October, when Ottey makes her next trip back to her native island, which she has only visited since leaving for the University of Nebraska in 1979.

It was another Jamaican expatriate, Sandra Farmer-Patrick, who pushed Gunnell to the world record in the 400 hurdles.

Farmer-Patrick, now a U.S. citizen from Pflugerville, Texas, built a tremendous lead early in the race and held it until the final 10 meters. Farmer-Patrick wound up with a new U.S. record of 52.79 seconds, breaking her own 4-year-old mark of 53.37.

Both Gunnell and Farmer-Patrick broke the world record of 52.94 set by Marina Stepanova of the Soviet Union in 1986. It was the first world record set in an Olympic track and field event since 1988, when tougher doping controls began.

Young, who set the men's 400 hurdles world record of 46.78 in the 1992 Olympic final, happily settled for winning this race in a meet record 47.18. It came after he had lost three of his previous four races on the Grand Prix circuit.

Behind him were 1991 world champion Samuel Matete of Zambia (47.60), Winthrop Graham of Jamaica (47.62) and Stepane Diagana of France (47.64).

No sooner had the race ended than Young removed his custom-made Nike spikes and begun waving them before the cameras.

"It was a little redemption for what happened the other day," Young said, referring to the sole falling off Olympic champion Quincy Watts' Nike spikes in the flat 400 final.

Bubka cleared 19 feet 8 1/4 inches to become the only athlete to win titles in the first four World Track and Field Championships. Even that was tarnished when Bubka's attempt at an outdoor record of 20-1 3/4 was embroiled in a dispute.

Bubka, 30, was delighted with his competition until the record attempt. He had needed just three jumps, all clearances, to win the gold over Grigori Yegorov of Kazakhstan, who topped out at 19-4 1/4 .

The problems began as Bubka readied for his initial attempt to add a quarter-inch to his world record.

The officials first called the opening attempt a miss because Bubka did not take it within the allotted two minutes.

After a five-minute argument with Bubka, they relented and gave him three more attempts with no apparent time limit. He missed all three.

"The referee completely killed my motivation," said Bubka, whose shoe contract with Nike includes a record bonus. "I can't believe it is possible to be a referee in the World Championships and make so big a mistake. It's a scandal."

In the decathlon, Dan O'Brien's chances for a second straight world title still seem good, especially after Olympic champion Robert Zmelik of the Czech Republic dropped out after four events with ankle pain, and 1991 world silver medalist Mike Smith of Canada quit after failing to get a legal long jump.

But O'Brien finished the first day with only a four-point lead over ,, Germany's Paul Meier, the crowd favorite.

"If I don't win, I'll be happy to have competed," said O'Brien, who has been bothered by a groin injury.

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