SYDNEY, Australia — There’s gold, there’s silver, there’s bronze, and there’s nuts. Based on her behavior this week, I’d say we throw the kooky medal around Marie-Jose Perec’s neck. In fact, I’d say it’s no contest.
How else do you explain this French track and field diva, who came to Sydney supposedly to defend her gold medal in the 400 meters, then refused to stay with the French team, locked herself inside a downtown hotel room, sent cryptic messages over the Internet claiming harassment, danger and freaky strangers, and then, Wednesday night, less than 48 hours before her scheduled first heat, gathered her entourage and hopped a plane to Singapore, claiming she needed to escape a stalker who kicked in her door.
Uh-huh. And every time her friends go to sleep, their bodies are snatched by these outer-space pods in the basement, and . . .
No wait. Wrong movie.
Folks, I have covered a lot of strange stories at the Olympics. This one, to stay in French mode, is the piece de resistance. Perec, a gifted sprinter and multiple-gold medalist, was once nicknamed La Gazelle by the French media.
She now has a new moniker: Mademoiselle Chicken.
At least that’s what the Australian press has labeled her, after her disappearing act that they claim is based not on any real threat but a fear of losing to Aussie darling Cathy Freeman.
Not to take sides, but I’d have to agree. The 32-year-old Perec — who has barely run a 400-meter race since last Olympics — has been ducking Freeman for months, always coming up with an illness, an excuse, or an argument over appearance money. The opening heats of the 400 were set for tonight at the Olympic Stadium. And all week long, the French team officials kept saying Perec would be there.
Then again, they also expected her to stay in the Olympic Village (she didn’t), to train with the French team (she didn’t), to show up for the team press conference (she didn’t), or to at least make a phone call to somebody who can find Paris on a map (she didn’t).
In fact, the only destination Perec seems to know in Sydney is the airport.
“Marie-Jose Perec has left Australian territory and will not compete in the Sydney Games” confirmed Henri Serandour, the French Olympic Committee president.
“The French delegation does not know the reasons but it would like to clarify that it is in no way linked to an anti-doping test.”
Oh. Good. We feel much better.
World according to Marie-Jose
For those of you who have missed out on this soap opera, let me share just a few of the highlights:
Perec, who won the 200 and 400 meters in the 1996 Olympics, arrives in Sydney two weeks ago. She races past reporters and jumps in a taxi — not to the Olympic Village, but to a ritzy hotel in Darling Harbour.
No one sees her for days.
She skips the Opening Ceremonies.
She starts sending Internet messages to “fans” on her Web site, claiming the press is hounding her so much she can’t leave her room — even though no reporter can remember seeing her. “It’s crazy,” she writes, “the other day I almost had a car crash.”
She refuses to train with the French team.
She is discovered working out at a private track, which she rents by the hour.
She sends out more cyber-messages, claiming there is a conspiracy “to destabilize me.”
She fails to show for a French team press conference.
Her Internet messages grow more and more desperate. “I must make sure where I train remains a secret so that it doesn’t get mobbed,” she writes. “I am so frightened. I am freaking right now. Oh, well, I am a pro and I know what to expect.”
She books a flight for Singapore.
She and her American boyfriend depart her hotel Wednesday night in a frantic rush. Later, her agent claims she was “threatened” by a stalker who claimed to have a delivery for her, pushed in her door, and declared, “I will find you wherever you go.”
Police and hotel officials find no evidence of a stalker.
Security films show no record of a stalker.
The French Olympic Committee president says, “I am very unconvinced” there even was a stalker.
At the Singapore airport, Perec and her boyfriend get into an altercation with a cameraman and are detained by police for 11 hours.
French team announces that Perec “will not be competing at the Sydney Games.”
Let’s see, did I miss anything? How about the part where the witch in the woods keeps attacking the kids with the camera . . .
No, wait. Wrong movie again.
‘She has a big ego’
Now, those of you familiar with Perec — and I am assuming there are at least four Americans who may have heard her name — wouldn’t be surprised by this behavior. After all, this is a woman who grew up in Guadeloupe, who never really wanted to run track, who, when asked by her high school coach to compete in a meet, hid in a closet and refused to come out.
This is a woman who has been dubbed “The Greta Garbo of Athletics,” a woman who prefers doing runway modeling to running around the track, a woman who has not seriously trained for months if not years, and who has gone through more coaches than you can count, most of whom say the same thing when they are done with her as did Francois Pepin:
“She has a big ego and thinks she is the center of the world.”
Now, you contrast this to Cathy Freeman, the Aussie medal hopeful who is so cherished by her country, she was chosen to light the Olympic flame, an honor rarely given to an active athlete.
Put two and two together, and this isn’t all that hard to figure out. The former champ is out of shape, can’t win, is intimidated by a new darling of the track, and doesn’t want to be exposed as a loser.
So she comes up with excuses, blames everything she can, invents an enemy, then takes off, leaving behind her one of the strangest pre-Olympic preparations since Eddie the Eagle.
“She ought to remember where she came from and how many people have taken care of her,” said the French Olympic Committee president.
Something tells me she’s not too worried about that.
The shame is that, for all her kookiness, Perec was an incredibly graceful sprinter who held world records, and, several times in her life, reached down and delivered what it took to be a Olympic champion.
These days, however, all she’s reaching down for is a plane ticket and an excuse. Say this for the woman: She increased traffic to her Web site.
But as for the distance she once owned on the track? Forget it. When they sum up the Sydney Olympics for Marie-Jose Perec, they do it this way:
She didn’t run 400 meters. She ran 11,000 miles.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). And catch Mitch’s Olympic TV reports on “The Early Show,” 7-9 a.m. weekdays on CBS (Channel 62 in Detroit).