Sun | Jan 26, 2020

Hubert Lawrence | Is Merlene still the greatest?

Published:Thursday | January 17, 2019 | 12:24 AM

Hopefully, the good news about impending motherhood for Veronica Campbell-Brown (VCB) won't spark a referendum to decide who Jamaica's finest female sprinter, is. In any case, it's hard to compare eras. Even where there are numbers to guide the debate, it's easy to blur important lines of reason.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce won six major individual championships in the 100 and 200 metres before she became the Mummy Rocket. Her brilliance makes her history's most successful 100 metres sprinter with three world titles and two Olympic gold medals. Her sixth major title came in the 2013 World Championships over 200 metres.

VCB has four, three in the 200m and one in the 100m. Merlene Ottey has two, from the 200m.

On that count, it's a done deal.

However, Ottey had fewer chances to win gold as the World Championships were only held every four years during the first half of her international career. Had the rotation moved to every two years earlier, things might been different. In 1989, which would have been a World Championship year under the biennial rotation that started in 1993, Ottey was world number one.

At the 2008 Olympics where Jamaica dominated the sprints, double medallist Kerron Stewart noted that the playing field was level. That wasn't the case in the 1980s. Fourth in the 100m and second in the 200m, Ottey lost to Marlies Gohr and Marita Koch of East Germany and American Diane Williams in the shorter race and to Koch in the longer event. Time and declassified secret service papers later revealed that all the East German athletes were part of a state-organised steroid use programme, and years later, Williams admitted to being on illegal performance enhancers in 1983.

At the 1987 Worlds, Ottey lost the 100m to another East German pair, Silke Gladisch and Heike Dreschler. If East German 'bandooloo' is ever punished, Merlene's major gold count will jump to five, with two in the 100m and three in the 200m.

All three are fast. The Mummy Rocket holds the national 100m record at 10.70 seconds, with Elaine Thompson matching that in 2016. Ottey is next at 10.74, with Stewart and VCB following at 10.75 and 10.76. According to, Ottey ran 66 sub-11 second times with Shelly-Ann at 42 and VCB at 49.


200m records


Ottey is still the fastest Jamaican ever at 200m, with a 1991 scorcher of 21.64 seconds. Thompson threatens at 21.66, which incidentally is Merlene's second-fastest time. The 1988 Olympic silver medal winner Grace Jackson and VCB are at number three and four at 21.72 and 21.74, respectively.

Shelly's best is 22.09 seconds ... for now.

Indoors, all of these super sprinters have run under seven seconds for 60 metres and all three have won World Indoor titles. VCB did it twice but Ottey has the national record at 6.96 seconds.

That, incidentally, was the first sub-7 seconds in history.

The indoor 200m isn't widely run anymore, but in an earlier era, Ottey won two world titles and lowered the world record to 22.24 and then 21.87 seconds. No one else has ever broken 22.

Those are the numbers. Shelly-Ann has the most gold medals, even more than Merlene's duly adjusted total. Merlene and Veronica have better records in the 200 metres. Overall, from 60 to 200 metres, the queen of the '80s and '90s is still the fastest on the clock.

Don't do the math now. This is a time of celebration. VCB and her husband, 2006 Commonwealth 200-metre champion Omar Brown, have moved into a new phase of their lives. Let us all wish her a happy landing.

- Hubert Lawrence has made notes at trackside since 1980.