ATLANTA -- Third place, 12 meters to go, the crowd screaming, and France's Marie-Jose Perec found the last gear.
This was the other "sprint double" at the Summer Olympics, last night, the one that was overshadowed and overlooked until the last 12 meters, when here came Perec of France, out of third, into first, and into the record books at the Centennial Games.
Perec won the women's 200, adding the gold to her 400 title, beating America's Michael Johnson to the sprint double finish by 15 minutes.
Before last night, the only other athlete to ever pull off the 200-400 double at the Olympics was American Valerie Brisco-Hooks at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. But those Games were boycotted by the Eastern bloc, leaving the best women runners on the sidelines.
Last night, Perec faced the best in the world and won going away in 22.12 seconds.
Merlene Ottey of Jamaica was second in 22.24. And Mary Onyali of Nigeria was third in 22.38, just ahead of America's Inger Miller.
"I'm on cloud nine," Perec said. "I never thought I would succeed. The 200 is like icing on the cake."
For two-thirds of the race, it appeared Ottey would get the gold that has eluded her at the Games. She was leading coming off the turn and into the stretch, with Onyali second and Perec third.
"I was sandwiched between the two of them, and I knew I'd have to run for my life," Onyali said. So did Perec. She didn't like her start, but with her long legs and her endurance training, she said she knew she could close with a rush.
"Everyone believed it was over for me," Perec said. "But I believed I could still win."
Running her eighth race of the Games, she somehow found the last gear that separates legends from also-rans. And she took off, running down Onyali, catching Ottey, touching the finish and history.
"Actually, I was just waiting for the right time," Perec said. "I didn't panic. The first, 100, 120 meters, the other girls were strong. I can't really be next to them after the start. My forte is at the end."
She finished first. She grabbed a French flag. She ran a victory lap. And then, like everyone else, she watched Johnson pull off the men's 200-400 double.
Did she feel overshadowed?
"No," she said to 500 reporters who were waiting for Johnson at a news conference. "A lot of people are here. This proves people respect what I've done."
Although she lives in Los Angeles, Perec is virtually unknown here. But in France, she is hugely popular. Perec was born in Basse-Terre on the island of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, and moved to Paris with her mother when she was 16.
"I'm like Michael Jordan in my country," she said. "I cannot walk in the streets. . . ."
She wants to model. She wants to run the 400-meter hurdles. She even talks of running the 800.
Apparently, there is little beyond Perec's grasp.
"Everything is possible," she said. "To the extent of our capacities, naturally."
For one Olympics, Perec ruled the world of women's track and field.
She even beat Michael Johnson to the finish.
Pub Date: 8/02/96