In congratulating track and field icon Merlene Ottey on being conferred with an honorary doctorate by the University of Technology, I note that Don Anderson's book, 'Seoul to Beijing' released late in 2011, but which I only recently read, is an outstanding tribute to this track and field legend and one which this column, albeit belatedly, acknowledges and applauds. It must have taken a lot of guts to write such a book. Given the various revelations made, I am surprised that it has attracted very little if any comments beyond a promotional piece written in the wake of its launch.
A lot has been written about Merlene over the approximately two weeks of her visit to Jamaica. I had a short meeting with her during this visit which I used, not only to 'catch up' generally, but to get her perspective on developments in track and field nationally and globally and to ask her response to at least one account in Anderson's book.
In responding for the umpteenth time about when is she likely to hang up her spikes, she told me with a 'straight face' that she planned to live to at least 125 years, which, given the longevity in her family, is not a far-fetched possibility. Amazingly, although now 52 years old, she looks to be in her 30s. She added that as long as she keeps beating the younger sprinters in Slovania, she will continue running. In fact, she wondered aloud why it is that no one asks those athletes whom she continues to defeat when they planned to stop running.
There was much more that she said which I will share at another time and in another forum. I will state, however, that she told me that she was in full agreement with Grace Jackson's suggestion made in accepting the 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award on her behalf at a function in Port of Spain, Trinidad, that she should share her personal life-long experiences as an athlete in a book. There is no doubt that such a book would add to the already impressive documentation on Merlene, as so many inaccuracies still abound that may only be corrected by an autobiography.
Some of her history while representing Jamaica are well chronicled in Anderson's book, which should be required reading at any tertiary institution where sports is included in the curriculum. Strangely, I acquired a copy only late last year, one that I determined then to add to my Christmas reading list. I suspect that it is only books about cricket, by local writers on sports, with the possible exception of Valerie Wint's impressively written book about her great father, Olympian Dr Arthur Wint, that contain the sort of behind-the-scenes information that Anderson provides.
From Seoul to Beijing certainly deserves to be more fully reviewed than it has been to date. Nowhere else have I seen documented some of the experiences he brings to the fore that answer a lot of the questions that still prevail about many of the issues and concerns affecting the national track and field agenda. Anderson said that the book was inspired by misconceptions especially pertaining to Merlene Ottey and he deals with several in some detail. In so doing he indicates strong supporting evidence and calls names. I have no doubt that even after reading some of the information provided, many of the fans will hold to their less informed positions where Anderson's does not conform with theirs. Even where his accounts may cause damage to the egos of some of the superstars in question he reduces or removes the harshness by his conversational, non-accusatory writing style.
His recollections of the infamous behaviour by some of Jamaica's athletes at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney are the most comprehensive post-Olympics account, strike that, post-international games, that I have ever seen by a Jamaican official, let alone the leader of the delegation. It is as balanced an account as anyone could expect to find published. For instance, I can't recall reading anywhere else that one of the two leaders of the outrageous demonstration in Sydney, apologised in writing. Previously, this athlete had stoutly defended his right to stand up, according to him "like Marcus Garvey," for what he believed to be right. But the morning after the dust had settled, he admitted in writing how misguided he was and confessed that "he did not have all the facts when he decided to demonstrate and stressed that having now considered the facts, the right decision was indeed made to run Merlene Ottey."
Anderson made several other disclosures about developments at the other Olympic Games up to Beijing at which he served as delegation leader. This is also the first public account about the apparent effect that Veronica Campbell Brown's fourth place finish in the 100 metres at the National Championship for Beijing had on her emotionally. Also a clear account is given of the histrionics of long jumper James Beckford in Atlanta and those of coach Stephen Francis in Beijing.
One thing stands out in going through the 262 pages: anybody who reads this book with prior notions about the glamour of serving as a team official for Jamaica, especially a track and field team, is likely to lose such ambitions. Anderson makes it clear that it is a thankless, not to be envied task. Citing a need for more effective succession planning by the JOA, he states that it was his intention to curtail his role as an official after the Athens Games, "but the lure of Beijing excited me." He further notes that there were three games between the time of writing and the London Games and that "the opportunity must be provided for new officials to gain the requisite experience to efficiently carry out their duties as head of the delegation." Given that he was again delegation leader in London, it seems that no one suitable was identified.
The book is enhanced by perspectives from Juliet Cuthbert and Glen Mills. The Cuthbert account understandably leaves a number of information gaps, given the limitation of space, which can best be filled by a book of her own. So too the account by Glen Mills which, like other sections in the book, contains at least one notable inaccuracy, that of naming Nikole Mitchell as part of the Barcelona Olympic team.
Anderson himself is guilty of some factual inaccuracies. A glaring example is his account of the 100 metres finals at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta in which Merlene placed second. His description of that race fits that of the 1997 World Championships in Athens when in the 100 metres finals she ran about 70 metres before realising that the starter had recalled the runners. She eventually finished seventh. In the 1996 Olympic 100 metres, there was a photo-finish in which Devers, not for the first time at a world games, got the benefit of the judges' decision leaving Merlene with the silver.
In my recent visit with her, Merlene repeated her by now well publicised sentiments of feeling like the prodigal daughter and loves what is happening in the local track and field arena, even expressing an interest in helping Kerron Stewart, via biometric analysis, in her quest to recover to her pre-Beijing form. Welcome home 'golden lady'!