Three-time Olympic gold medalist, Marie-José Pérec, is one of the greatest female sprinters of modern times. The French athlete, nicknamed “La Gazelle” on account of her graceful running style and speed around the track, was the first sprinter to win consecutive Olympic gold medals in the 400-metre dash. In 2013, Perec, was described by the French President François Hollande as “one of the most brilliant athletes in the history of French athletics”.
Perec was born 9 May 1968, on the French-governed island of Guadeloupe. Perec was introduced to sprinting by her school gym teacher who, the first time she saw her run, was apparently so surprised by her speed over 100 meters she asked her to do it again because she was convinced the stop-watch had malfunctioned. Perec’s long legs — by the age of 13 she was already 5’10” (1.78 meters) tall — made her ideally suited to 200- and 400-meter running. In 1984 she was recruited by a visiting French coach who took her to France, where she placed second in the 200-metre dash at the French junior championships. In 1988, at age 20, she set her first national record in the 400 metres (51.35 seconds) and made her Olympic debut in Seoul, South Korea, where she advanced to the quarterfinals of the 200 metres.
Perec won the 400 metres at the 1991 and 1995 world championships, and at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, she captured her first medal, winning the gold in that event. At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, she accomplished the rare feat of winning both the 200-metre and 400-metre races becoming the first sprinter to retain her Olympic title in the 400 metres. She successfully defended the title by holding off Australia’s Cathy Freeman in a thrilling final to win in 48.25 seconds, an Olympic record, and which also ranks her as the third fastest woman of all time. In addition to her Olympic and World titles, Pérec was also a part of the gold medal-winning 4 × 400 metres relay team at the 1994 European Championships in Helsinki. Pérec was chosen as the L’Équipe Champion of Champions in 1992 and 1996 by the French sports daily, L’Équipe.
Following the 1996 season, however, she was plagued by numerous injuries. In 1998 she was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr disease, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, she hoped to make a comeback but abruptly withdrew from the Games shortly before she was to compete against her archrival Cathy Freeman.
After retiring from track and fields, Perec enrolled to top French business school ESSEC and graduated in 2007 to become a consultant. Pérec is today a member of the ‘Champions for Peace’ club, a group of more than 70 famous elite athletes committed to promoting peace in the world through sports, created by Peace and Sport, a Monaco-based international organization. On 21 October 2012, Pérec was elected as the president of the Ligue Régionale d’Athlétisme de la Guadeloupe, the governing body for athletics in Guadeloupe.
On 9 Oct 2013, Pérec was awarded the Officier de la Légion d’honneur by French President François Hollande in the Élysée Palace. Just before presenting the insignia to Pérec during the award ceremony, Hollande described her as “one of the most brilliant athletes in the history of French athletics”. Pérec had received the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 1996.
On 16 Nov 2013, Pérec was inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame.