Russia’s Svetlana achieved unique 800m-1500m Double at 1996 Olympics | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

Russia’s Svetlana achieved unique 800m-1500m Double at 1996 Olympics

29 May, 2022
Olympic Gold in 800m
Olympic Gold in 800m

Svetlana Masterkova from Russia was one of the world’s best female middle-distance runners in the 1990s, winning Olympic and world titles. Masterkova made it to the 1991 World Championships, where she could manage only eighth place in the 800m. It remained her only major international competition prior to the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, due to injuries and childbirth.

While such a run of bad luck may have disheartened most runners, the blonde-haired, energetic Masterkova held on to her dreams of winning at the Olympics and qualified to take part at the Atlanta 1996. Yet, she was not considered a favourite in the 800m, with two of the leading athletes Maria Mutola and Ana Fidelia Quirot were expected to battle for the gold medal. But Masterkova took the lead from the start, and led the entire race to become the Olympic Champion.

After this astonishing performance, she caused a major upset by adding the 1,500m title in similar fashion. Thus, in 1996, she not only became internationally renowned in athletics, but also became only the second woman ever in the Olympic history to win Olympic gold medals in both the 800m and 1500m events. Prior to Masterkova, only Tatyana Kazankina of Russia had accomplished the feat, earning her gold double 20 years before at the Montreal 1976 Olympics.

Masterkova completed her 1996 season by setting two world records. She missed the 1997 season due to injuries, but returned in 1998 to win a European 1,500m title. At the 1999 World Championships, Masterkova won the gold in 1,500m, but had to settle for a bronze in the 800m. She also competed at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, but was forced to abandon her 1,500m heat due to injury.

Masterkova won numerous world titles and remained well-known in the running world for her ability to overcome numerous setbacks and kick-start her professional career at an age when other runners were contemplating retirement. A strong sprinter, she used her competitive edge to set world records for both the one mile and the 1000-meter during her career.

Birth and Career

Svetlana Aleksandrovna Masterkova was born on January 17, 1968 in Achinsk in the USSR. She showed an early talent for track as a runner, though she did not reach her full potential until relatively late in her career. She was under the compulsory tutelage of a zealous and staunchly Soviet physical education teacher and was competing by the time she was just 12. Masterkova started out as an 800 metres runner and clocked 2:04:3 by the age of 15.

She first appeared in the international arena at the 1985 European Athletics Junior Championships, taking sixth place in the 800m. With a height of 1.72 m (5 ft 7+1⁄2 in) and weighing 59 kgs (130 pounds), she continued to compete in middle-distance events, but began to show the promise of her early talent in her late twenties, a period considered late in a professional runner’s career.

Her breakthrough came at the 1991 USSR National Championships, where she yielded her first gold in the 800m, clocking 1:57.23, which also qualified her for the 1991 World Championships. However, at the World Track and Field Championships held in Tokyo, Japan a month later, she finished a disappointing eighth.

A virus side lined her dreams of running at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Then back injuries forced her out of the Russian trials as well as the 1993 World Championships. During the succeeding seasons, she had some minor successes. She secured a silver at the 1993 IAAF World Indoor Track and Field Championships in Toronto, Canada amidst injuries.

Married to the Russian professional cyclist Assiat Saitov, Masterkova became pregnant in 1994 and took time off from competition to give birth to her daughter, Anastasia, in March 1995. Their daughter Anastasiya Saitova later became a professional tennis player.

After nine months break from the track and away from serious running in 1994 and 1995, she quickly regained her racing weight of 130 pounds and threw herself back into a strenuous training regime designed by coach Svetlana Styrkina in order to regain her speed and stamina.

By the time Anastasiya was two months, her mother was ready to return to competition. Once again in top form, she looked ahead to the July 1996, Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1996, she returned and instead of only running the 800m, she also decided to compete in the 1500m, a distance she had not competed in four years. At the 1996 Russian Championships, she won both, the 800m in 1:58.34 and the 1500m in 3:59.30.

Gold in 800m at Atlanta 1996 Olympics

Despite her winning performance at the Russian Nationals, Masterkova was considered a longshot for an Olympic medal, particularly against a strong 800-meter field that included world-class runners such as Maria de Lurdes Mutola from Mozambique and Ana Fidelia Quirot from Cuba.

The 800m at the Games of the XXVI Olympiad were held on July 26 (heats), July 27 (semi-finals) and July 29 (finals). There was a total of 37 competitors from 31 countries. The world and Olympic records prior to the 1996 Summer Olympics were 1:53.28 by Jarmila Kratochvilova in Munich on July 26, 1983 and 1:53.43 by Nadiya Olizarenko in Moscow on July 27, 1980, respectively.

The first two in each heat and the next six fastest qualified to the semifinals whilst first four in each heat qualified directly to the final. Masterkova took the lead from the start, and led the entire race to become the Olympic champion.

The official results of the 800m event at the 1996 Summer Olympics: Gold Medal - Svetlana Masterkova of Russia in 1:57.73; Silver Medal - Ana Fidelia Quirot of Cuba clocking 1:58.11; Bronze Medal - Maria de Lurdes Mutola of Mozambique with 1:58.71.

Gold in 1500m at Atlanta 1996 Olympics

Equally daunting was the 1,500-meter field, which included the talented Irish runner Sonia O’Sullivan alongside Romanian Gabriela Szabo, Hassiba Boulmerka, and Portugal’s Carla Sacramento. But the Russian surprised everyone by taking the Olympic gold medal.

The 1500m at the Summer Olympic Games were held in the Centennial Olympic Stadium on July 31 (heats), August 1 (semi-finals) and August 3 (finals). A total of 37 competitors from 31 nations took part. The standing world and Olympic records prior to the 1996 Olympics were 1:53.28 by Jarmila Kratochvilova established in Munich on July 26, 1983 and 1:53.43 of Nadiya Olizarenko created in Moscow on July 27, 1980, respectively.

The first six in each heat and the next six fastest qualified to the semi-finals and first four in each heat and the next two fastest qualified to the final. After her surprise victory in 800m, Masterkova caused a major upset by also securing the 1500m Olympic title, thereby equalling Tatyana Kazankina’s performance at the 1976 Olympics. Later, Kelly Holmes repeated the performance of 800m-1500m double in Athens 2004 Olympics.

The official results of the 1,500m event: Gold - Svetlana Masterkova of Russia in 4:00.83; Silver - Gabriela Szabo of Romania with 4:01.54; Bronze - Theresia Kiesl of Austria in 4:03.02.

Masterkova proved that these performances were no flukes by embarking on a world record-breaking spree immediately after the Olympics. She completed her 1996 season by setting two new world records at the one mile and 1,000m distances. At Zurich, Switzerland she clocked a personal best of 4:12:56 in her first-ever mile competition on August 14, 1996, then went on to win the 1,000m in the record-setting time of 2:28:98 in Brussels, nine days later on August 23, 1996.

Her victories in 1996 propelled Masterkova into the spotlight, and earned her more than just celebrity status. In addition to the Olympic prize money, the Russian government provided her with a new car, an upscale apartment, the equivalent of $250,000 in cash, and land on which she planned to build a vacation home.

IAAF Athletes’ Legends Prize

In December 1996, she joined legendary U. S. sprinter Michael Johnson as co-recipient of the International Athletic Federation’s Athletes’ Legends Prize. Competing in the 800m event requires immediate speed, while the longer 1,500m draws on stamina and endurance as the runner must sustain race pace for a much longer period. As she trained hard in running short intervals as well as incorporating longer tempo runs into her running schedule, Masterkova was able to excel in both speed and endurance.

When racing, she often avoided taking the lead early on, preferring to “draft” off the front runner and then accelerate for her final “kick” past the front runner and across the finish line. Confident sometimes to the point of arrogance, she was known to disparage her opponents for not developing more aggressive racing strategies.

Unfortunately for Masterkova, the intensive training required for her to maintain peak physical performance began to take its toll. In addition to an abnormally high heart rate, in the wake of her 1996 Olympic victory, her Achilles tendons began to hamper her performance, forcing her to cut back her training to one day in three.

Although she was able to earn wins in the 800, her longer races suffered. In 1997, she easily won the Russian National 1500m title at Tula in 4:03.51, but her hopes of repeating her Olympic victory at the 1997 World Championships in August were dashed due to an injury, which resulted in her limping home last in her semi-final.

Masterkova made a spectacular return in 1998, winning all but one of the 11 races over 1500m or one mile that she contested. At the major event of 1998 European Championships in Budapest, she eased through her heat on August 21, 1998, before blitzing the field two days later in the final, winning off a slow pace in 4:11.91 with a last lap of 57.3 sec. She had earlier won the gold in one mile at the 1998 Goodwill Games, and finished off the year with a victory in the 1500m at the 1998 World Cup in Johannesburg.

Gold in 1500m at Seville 1999

However, one honour that had eluded her during her career had been a medal at the World Championships. Her two appearances had resulted in an eighth-place finish in the 800m final in 1991, and a disappointing last place in her 1500m semi-final in 1997, where she had been hampered by an injury. Masterkova rectified this situation in 1999 in a most emphatic way.

Early in the 1999 season she was a dominant force in the 800m, recording a number of significant performances, including the year’s fastest time and new personal best of 1:55.87 at Moscow on June 18. She also produced the year’s fastest time of 2:31.18 over 1000m at Nice on July 17, defeating a number of the world’s best runners.

At the World Championships in Seville, she easily won her heat of the 800m and her semi-final the following day. However, in a closely run final, she was unlucky to only win the bronze behind Czech Ludmila Formanova. Masterkova was much more successful in the 1500m final five days later, when she easily won her first and only World Championships gold medal.

That was virtually the end of Masterkova’s international track career. She underwent surgery on Achilles tendons in 1999. It surprised no one when, as she had after given birth to her daughter, the 30-year-old Masterkova quickly rebounded and resumed her rigorous training schedule. With one Olympic triumph under her belt, she looked ahead eagerly to the 2000 Games.

Believing herself to be fully recovered from her injury, Masterkova easily qualified for the upcoming games to be held in Sydney, Australia, beginning in mid-September of 2000. Unfortunately, the intensive training she undertook to prepare her for the 800m and 1,500m events rekindled her Achilles problems.

Although she had a reasonably successful year in 2000 with a year’s best time of 4:01.15 over 1500m, she failed to finish her heat of the 1500m at the Olympic Games. Half way through, Masterkova collided with another runner and crumpled, the pain tearing up her calf bringing tears to her eyes. She limped off the track, her Olympic hopes dashed and her running career at an end.

She announced her retirement from international competitions at Znamensky Indoor stadium on January 7, 2003. Retiring from international competitions at thirty-four plus, Masterkova could look back on a career dotted by setbacks and yet successful in that she surprised the track world by attaining both Olympics and World Championship gold medals relatively late in her career.

Honours and Awards

She was conferred with the Order of Merit for the Fatherland, 3rd class for the services to the State and outstanding achievements in sport on August 26, 1996. It is a state decoration of the Russian Federation instituted by a Presidential Decree. Then, she was presented with an Honoured Master of Sports of Russia.

In 1996, she was honoured with the World Athlete of the Year award, which is a prize that can be won by athletes participating in events within the sport of athletics organized by World Athletics (formerly named IAAF), including track and field, cross country running, road running, and racewalking.

Then, she was declared the European Sportsperson of the Year in 1996. It is an annual sports award presented by Polish Press Agency (PAP) to the most outstanding male or female athlete after considered by a panel of 27 international news agencies. She was inducted into the International Association of Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) ‘Hall of Fame’ in 2013.

Her Personal Best performances and records included: 400m in 53.12 on July 8, 1992; 800m in 1:55.87 (National Record) at Moscow on June 18, 1999; 1000m in 2:28.98 (World Record) at Brussels on August 23, 1996; 1500m in 3:56.77 at Zurich on August 14, 1996; One Mile in 4:12.56 (World Record) at Zurich on August 14, 1996.

Medals and Accomplishments

Her chronology in elite competitions: 1991 - National title in 800m at the Russian National Championships; 1993 - Silver Medal in 800m at the World Indoor Track and Field Championships; 1996 - Gold Medals for Women’s 800m and 1500m at the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta; 1996 - Gold Medal in 1000m at the Grand Prix with a world record-setting time of 2:28.98; 1996 - International Athletic Association Federation’s (IAAF) Athletes’ Legends Prize; 1998 - Gold Medal in 1500m at the European Championships; 1998 – Gold Medal in the 1500m at the World Cup; 1999 – Gold Medal in 800m at the Russian National Championships, with a personal best performance of 1:55:87; 1999 - Gold Medal in 1500m and Bronze medal in 800m at the World Track and Field Championships; 2000 - Qualified for Sydney 2000 Summer Olympic Games.

(The author is an Associate Professor, International Scholar, winner of Presidential Awards and multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. His email is [email protected])