The “Gazelle” from the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe started out as a basketball player until she was discovered as a track athlete. Initially a 200 metre runner, Marie-José Péréc’s breakthrough came in the 400 metres at the 1988 French Championships. Her star soon rose, winning the 200 m at the 1989 European Indoor Championships, and gaining a bronze at the outdoor Europeans (400 m) in Split, 1990. Her first great victory was at the Tokyo World Championships in 1991, when she defeated Germany’s Grit Breuer to win the world title. She confirmed her status at the Olympics the next year, winning gold in Barcelona. An attempt to switch back to the 200 failed somewhat, as Pérec placed only fourth at the 1993 Worlds. In 1994, she again raced in the 400, winning both the individual and relay events at the European Championships. The following year, she also regained her world title, while also trying her hand at the 400 hurdles – in which she broke the French national record. For the 1996 Olympics, Pérec again set her sights at both the 200 and 400 metres. She wished to emulate the performance of Valerie Brisco-Hooks, who had won both events in 1984. Pérec won “her” 400 m event in a great battle with Cathy Freeman, with both athletes finishing below 49 seconds. Pérec’s 48.25 was her fastest ever 400 m, and as of 2012 remained the third fastest 400 ever (behind Marita Koch and Jarmila Kratochvílová). In the 200 final, Pérec faced the formidable Merlene Ottey, who was out of the blocks the fastest. But the tall Frenchwoman caught her in the closing meters to win the double, shortly before Michael Johnson would do the same (albeit in world record time).
After Atlanta, Pérec’s career went downhill due to injuries and illness. She had to abandon the 1997 World Championships due to injury in the heats, and missed most of the 1998 and 1999 seasons, running less impressive times when she did compete. Qualifying for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Pérec became the target of Australian journalists who saw her as the major opponent for local favorite Freeman. After she was harrassed at her hotel (she did not stay at the Olympic Village), she decided to leave the country, together with her boyfriend, US Olympian Anthuan Maybank. Still followed by journalists at their stopover in Singapore, Maybank attacked one of their followers, resulting in a minor scandal. Although Pérec did not officially retire until 2004, she rarely competed after Sydney, again suffering from injuries. In 2010, Pérec gave birth to a son, the father being French Winter Olympic medallist Sébastien Foucras.
Personal Bests: 100 – 10.96 (1991); 200 – 21.99 (1993); 400 – 48.25 (1996).