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'Selfish' Ottey cost Jamaica 1980 Olympic medal, say teammates

Published:Saturday | August 31, 2013 | 12:00 AM
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Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer

Selfishness by a young Merlene Ottey cost Jamaica a medal in the sprint relay at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Russia, according to teammates.

More than three decades later Jamaica's 'Sprint Queen' is still the target of their wrath, as damning accusations of manipulation and diva attitude have been levelled at one of the most decorated athletes in track and field history.

Then 20-year-old Ottey emerged as a force in athletics by winning her first Olympic medal in Moscow. But she also angered 4x100 metres relay teammates Rosie Allwood, Jacqueline Pusey and Lileith Hodges, who claimed she put personal goals ahead of the team.

In separate interviews conducted August 7, Allwood, Pusey and Hodges blamed Ottey for being overly demanding. They also claimed she was coddled by national coaches who ensured she got her way. The three women, at least one admitting that Ottey's alleged conduct in 1980 "still hurts," also accused her of depriving them an Olympic medal, after she had won bronze in the 200 metres, then snubbing the relay team when Jamaica lost.

"We were very happy about Merlene's accomplishment," recalled Allwood, "but we had trouble with Merlene."

Allwood, Pusey and Hodges blamed Ottey for a bungled baton change on the anchor leg in the 4x100 final. But the problems began long before Jamaica's team arrived in Russia, then a part of the now dissolved Soviet Union. Ottey, a fast-rising teenage star, joined Jamaica's team for the 1979 Pan American Games. She won bronze in the 200 metres and was a member of the sprint relay team, which claimed silver in Puerto Rico. By 1980, teammates said, Ottey had carved out turf.

"She declared she can only run the anchor leg," Allwood recalled. "She said she can only receive the baton, not give it."

Jamaica's coaches bowed.

"It was what Merlene wanted, Merlene got," Pusey said. "It wasn't about the team."

Pre-Olympics training camp in England unmasked problems. The original 4x100 running order called for Hodges to start, hand off to Allwood, then Pusey. But Pusey and Ottey, "fierce rivals" according to Allwood, never meshed. Pusey was "insulted" she wasn't anchoring and complained Ottey always took off too soon, refused to slow down, and made it hard for Pusey to hand over the baton.

"There was some difficulty in practice leading up to the Olympics," Allwood acknowledged.

Tempers flared. Pusey threatened to "hit (Ottey) with the baton," recalled Allwood, a charge Pusey didn't deny.

Eventually, Allwood, who along with Hodges were the oldest members at 28, said she, not the coaches, changed the relay order to defuse tension. Pusey would run the second leg. Allwood would link Ottey. Pusey didn't like that either.

"I earned that (anchor) spot," said the 1980 Olympic 200 metres semi-finalist. "... I wasn't very happy."

Allwood understood.

"Jackie had the most killer instinct to anchor," she said. "She was a hell of a finisher."

The first two baton changes in the Olympic final weren't perfect, but Jamaica clung to medal hopes as Allwood barrelled down on Ottey. Then like practice, Allwood, Hodges and Pusey claimed, Ottey mistimed her release.

"Merlene took off a good two strides before Rosie hit her mark," Pusey explained. "She left way too early."

Allwood yelled.

"I said 'Merlene!'"

Ottey, wary of the disqualification zone, checked her speed.

"(But) rather than slow down and take the baton, she stopped," said Allwood. " She got the baton standing up."

Jamaica stalled. East Germany swept to gold in a world record 41.6 seconds, with the Soviet Union second and Great Britain third. Jamaica finished sixth in 43.19, a new national record. It was small consolation.

"The exchange between Merlene and Rosie, that's where it really went bad," said Hodges. " I was disappointed. But I wasn't as mad as Jackie and Rosie, who wanted to go curse (Ottey) out."

Pusey believes Ottey took off in fear.

"She deliberately left early," she said. "She didn't want anyone to run up on her."

Pusey considered confronting Ottey.

"I wanted to run all the way to the finish and hit her with the baton because she had run off and left Rosie," she said.

Allwood, too, was upset. But Ottey's post-race reaction made her furious.

"I saw it as a very selfish act what (Ottey) did in Moscow," said Allwood. "I switched up the relay team to accommodate Merlene and, after she did what she did, she just walked away. She didn't care."

last shot

For Allwood, a three-time Olympian, 1980 was her last shot at a Games medal.

"I was focused on getting an Olympic medal in the 4x100 and we thought we had a good chance," she said. "Merlene messed that up."

Allwood never ran for Jamaica again. Hodges targeted the 1984 Olympics, but got pregnant and missed out. Pusey, almost 21 in 1980, believed she would eventually win a Games medal. It never happened.

"(Ottey) cost us our Olympic medal," said Pusey, "and now we don't have any."

Allwood, Pusey and Hodges said they "embraced" Ottey when she joined Jamaica's team, which was confirmed by other sources. The plan backfired.

"She never focused on the relays," said Hodges. "She was just so obsessed with her own race."

Efforts to contact Ottey were unsuccessful up to press time. No response was received for questions about Moscow 1980 and her team-mates' allegations sent to an email address believed to be Ottey's.

Ottey's take

But in a February interview with Television Jamaica, Ottey offered insight on her approach to relays while discussing her embroilment in another controversial incident, this time at the 2000 Olympics in Australia. Ottey confirmed in the TVJ interview that there were problems with exchanges in practice at those Games, and accused teammate Beverly McDonald of "missing purposely" with the baton so she would have to repeat the drill. Ottey blamed fatigue from the repetition among reasons she "lost that gold medal" in the 100 metres. She also claimed "a lot of jealousy" in Jamaica's team. Years later Ottey competed for Slovenia.

Her relay teammates in Moscow praised her as an outstanding athlete.

"Merlene had an awesome career," said Allwood. "She was great."

They said they decided to speak publicly about Moscow Olympics now because they didn't want to tarnish Ottey's accomplishments while she was in her prime.

"We're just setting the record straight," said Pusey.

The hurt remains.

"It bothers me still," Pusey admitted. "I would not do what (Ottey) did at other people's expense. I have nothing against her. I just hate she cost us a medal and she didn't give a damn."

Allwood didn't speak to Ottey for eight years. She relented at a meet in 1988.

"That was the first time since Moscow," said Allwood.

For Pusey, it's not that simple.

"I haven't spoken to (Ottey) since (Moscow)," she said. "If I see her I will say hello, but that's it."

Hodges didn't avoid Ottey, now 53, but never hid her feelings over Moscow either.

"I tried to make peace," said Hodges. "But I wasn't happy."

Still, Ottey's Moscow team-mates claim they have moved beyond the relay fallout.

"I got past it," said Hodges. "I don't dwell on it at all."

Ottey didn't either. She never won individual Olympic gold, but collected nine medals in six games, became a world champion and ambassador for track.

In her wake, she left three unhappy Jamaican teammates.