When MarieJosé Pérec, officially announced her retirement on Monday (7 June) last week it brought an end to a career which had been marked by three Olympic and two World titles, by many coaching changes, and by the fascination of the public for the French sprinter’s complex personality.
Pierre-Jean Vazel now gives us a recap of Pérec's career -
The young Guadeloupean Marie-José was soon noticed by her sport teachers for her good skills in sports (basketball, volleyball, swimming) and especially her ability to beat boys at running.
With her first coach Lucien Réchal, she won her first ever medal at high jump, and was selected at 200m for the French Youth Championships in 1984.
A gazelle in Paris
In 1986, she went to live in Paris and joined Fernand Urtebise: “The first time I saw her, I was astonished by her physique”, he said of the 1.80m and 59kg girl, “she reminded me of Wilma Rudolph”.
In the fall of 1987, François Pépin, seeing that this incredible talent was seeming lost to the sport, persuaded her to comeback to athletics. She accepted and broke with 51.35 the French record held by Nicole Duclos since 1969.
She chose 200m at Seoul Olympic Games in 1988, and reached the quarter-finals. Pérec beat Ana Quirot at the 1989 World Cup, in 50.30 but was disqualified for stepping into the inside lane.
1990 was a year tainted by various injuries and a clash with Pépin: “Marie-Jo has a difficult temper and often behaves as if she were the centre of the universe”, but reckoned that “she was so talented that I estimated she would run 47.5 one day”. Under Michel Dach, she still managed an unexpected European Bronze medal.
In November 1990, Jacques Piasenta agreed to train Pérec and improved her technique. Her stride length went from 2.30m to 2.50m, and she lowered the national records to 10.96, 22.26 and 49.13 for a first World title win in Tokyo.
1992 was another undefeated year at 400m for Pérec, the highlight being the Olympic win in Barcelona with 48.83, from defending champion Olga Bryzgina.
In 1994, she escaped the media and audience pressure by joining John Smith in Los Angeles.
“Mary” maintained her 400m win streak with European and World gold and became the first athlete ever to retain a 400m title in Atlanta 1996 Games (48.25, Olympic Record), and added another gold at 200m.
The eternal comebacks
In 1997, tired by the Olympic campaign, Pérec took part in the 200m at Athens World Championships, but injured herself before the semi-finals.
The next spring, Epstein-Barr virus forced her to defer all her competitions until 1999. Pérec left Smith to train from 2000 with Wolfgang Meier, coach and husband of World Record Holder (47.60) Marita Koch: “Marie-Jo has a very strong mental attitude, the same character as Marita, Kratochvilova, Bryzgina and Freeman who are, for me, the 400m greatest."
Her first races were encouraging in an Olympic Games perspective.
However, soon after her arrival in Sydney where she was supposed to challenge Australian Cathy Freeman, she felt persecuted and quit the town in an extravagant escape before delving into a nearly complete silence that lasted 3 years.
Seen here and there on various training stadiums around the world, Pérec announced in 2002 her will to compete in Paris World Championships with the help of Brooks Johnson. Sciatica problems ended her comeback during spring 2003.
A new life
Marie-José Pérec will be in Athens Olympics, this time as a TV consultant, she has also projects related with tourism in Guadeloupe as well as a communication role with French Federation and young athletes.
“I'm retiring a contented woman. I experienced great emotions and now I want to know what it's like on the other side”, says the greatest French athlete ever.
Pierre-Jean Vazel for the IAAF
100m 10.96 (1991), 200m 21.99 (1993), 400m 48.25 (1996, ranked 3rd on all-time lists), 400mH 53.21 (1995).
Major Championship records
Olympic Games: 400m 1st 1992 & 1996, 200m 1st 1996 & qf 1988, 4x100m 4th 1992 & 6th 1996.
World Championships: 400m 1st 1991 & 1995, 200m 4th 1993 & sf 1997, 4x100m 4th 1993 & 5th 1991, 4x400m heats 1995
World Cup: 200m 1st 1992, 4x100m 2nd 1992.
European Championships: 400m 1st 1994 & 3rd 1990, 4x400m 1st 1994 & 5th 1990.
European Cup: 400m 1st 1991, 200m 1st 1996 & 2nd 1993, 400mH 1st 1995, 100m 2nd 1993.
Win/loss record 1988-2000
100m won 11 finals, lost 9 finals
200m won 38, lost 30, 1disqualification
400m won 28, lost 6, 2 disqualifications
400mH won 7, lost 2.