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200M, 400M Champ Won't Defend

A man walks across a puddle as St. Stephen's Tower, commonly known as Big Ben, is reflected on the pavement on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2007, in London.
Getty Images/Daniel Berehulak
Marie-Jose Perec, a three-time Olympic champion so reclusive and mysterious she's been dubbed the "Greta Garbo of athletics," withdrew from the Sydney Games and a chance at history.

Perec, two-time defending champion in the 400 meters and a rival of favorite Cathy Freeman of Australia in the 400, flew to Singapore after claiming that a man forced his way into her room and threatened her. She left one day before Friday's first-round heats in her event.

After holding out hope all day that Perec somehow would return to the Olympics, the French team announced Thursday that she had withdrawn from the games.

"The French delegation regrets that an athlete who has brought so much to Olympism in general, and to French sports in particular, is not participating in the Sydney Games," said a statement released by the French Olympic delegation.

The statement also said Perec's departure had nothing to do with drug tests and that she had not been subjected to an out-of-competition drug test before the games.

Francois Carrard, director general of the International Olympic Committee, said Friday the IOC received no explanation for Perec's withdrawal.

"We didn't ask for any," he said. "We live in a free world."

Answering a question about Perec, Carrard said people under such pressure often "make choices and decisions which perhaps are not the best ones."

In Singapore, Perec and her companion were questioned by police following a scuffle with a television cameraman awaiting their arrival.

Perec's companion, former American 400-meter runner Anthuan Maybank, got into an altercation at Singapore's airport that sent TV cameraman Kyme Hallion a free-lancer working for Sydney's Channel Nine to a hospital to check for head injuries.

"He came at me like a raging bull," Hallion told The Associated Press in an interview from his Singapore office.

Channel Nine showed the incident on its evening newscast. A man's voice is heard amid scuffling sounds, saying: "Listen to me. If you come near me again, I will hurt you. Give me the tape."

Singapore police spokesman Phillip Mah said Perec and Maybank were questioned by police but no arrests were made. She later left for Paris.

Denise Kaigler, spokeswoman for Perec's chief sponsor, Reebok, said Perec left Australia after being accosted in Sydney at her hotel.

"Marie-Jose has been under a great deal of pressure and yesterday afternoon she was harassed in her hotel room by an unidentified man who forced his way into her room and threatened her," Kaigler said.

Police and a hotel official said they had no knowledge of such an incident.

In 1996, Perec became the second woman to sweep the 200 and 400 gold medals in an Olympics. The 32-year-old Perec had hoped to win an unprecedented third straight 400-meter gold in the Sydney Games.

She had been a mystery woman iSydney, where she refused to train with the French team and hid from reporters. Her only public appearance was her arrival at the Sydney Airport, where she sprinted past cameramen.

The media pressure intensified the more she withdrew, particularly in the Australian press because of her rivalry with Freeman. The Daily Telegraph took a parting shot on Friday, putting Perec on Page 1 with the headline "Mademoiselle La Chicken."

Freeman has not lost at 400 meters in more than three years but has lost seven of her nine career races against Perec. She was not talking to reporters Thursday. But Australian track and field coach Chris Wardlaw said Perec probably wasn't ready to run.

"I think if she's not here she obviously wasn't in shape, so it wouldn't have been a great race anyway," Wardlaw said. "She's the athlete of the decade in the `90s, a truly great athlete, and obviously in her mind she wasn't going to be able to compete up to that level."

Perec, nicknamed "The Gazelle" because of her fluid, long-legged running style, won the 1996 Atlanta Games gold in 48.25 seconds an Olympic record. But she has not won a 400-meter race since then.

Perec has been tormented by Epstein Barr syndrome, a rare virus that causes chronic fatigue, and dropped out of three races this summer in Europe that would have pitted her against Freeman.

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