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Feature12 Aug 2012

With Olympic triumph Savinova displays her tactical prowess


Gold Medal for Mariya Savinova of Russia as she crosses the finish line in the Women's 800m Final of the London 2012 Olympic Games on 11 August 2012 (© Getty Images)

Mariya Savinova is something of a conundrum. As the Russian was happy to confirm after beating Caster Semenya to the Olympic 800m title with a perfectly judged finish to a swift but tactical final, she has a reputation as a calm and calculating racer.

And yet the woman who had broken through at global level a year earlier by winning at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu also revealed that she had been in tears on the morning of the race.

After finishing comfortably clear of Semenya, who moved from sixth to second in the final 70 metres, Savinova confirmed that victory went to the wily.

"The 800 metres is such a tactical event. You have to be very, very smart to run the event. It’s like being a chess player. You can’t be successful unless you make preparations.

"You have to be very smart, you have to think fast about which step has to be done, whether to the right or left, and when you have to finish or delay the finish."

By that criterion, Semenya proved a less adept chess player on the night, although Savinova was circumspect in her comments about the South African who beat her to the world title in 2009.

"Something was not satisfactory for Semenya," she said. "Maybe she had health problems. I cannot really comment on her race. I controlled the situation. I didn’t try to go too quickly from the beginning.

"But it’s difficult to become an Olympic champion because I’ve had a lot of injuries over the past two years. It was my target always to win the Olympic title, over 12 years of training. It was my dream, and I think even now I can’t believe I have done it.

"Of course the victory in Daegu was very important and meaningful to me, but the Olympic Games are more important.

"I’m very happy, I’m full of emotions because everything was OK. I didn’t feel very well this morning, there were even tears in my eyes, but I know that when I have tears everything will be OK.

"After the race I didn’t feel well, I even had to see a doctor. I think it was because I pushed myself so much.

"Of course my rivals today were the strongest competition. When I finished in Daegu last year I could have been overtaken, but here when I came into the home straight I saw from the scoreboard my position, and it was much easier for me than in Daegu.

"I knew I could run fast over the last 120, 100 metres. I could have run faster, but it was not necessary."

Asked what the Russian had said to her after the race, Semenya replied: "She just told me that I did a good job but why did I leave it so late, because she was expecting me to be better.

I expected more, but I am happy with silver in my first Olympics. You never know what is going to happen in a race."

Although she ran the 400m at the national championships, Savinova – who turns 27 on Sunday - was swift to rule out any intention of taking up the shorter distance as her main event.

"I will not change to the 400 because I have found my favourite event, my favourite distance," she said. "I don’t want to change. Maybe in the years when I will be slower I will run the 1500."

Her success produced the last of four athletics gold medals on the day for Russia following earlier victories in the race walking events and the women’s high jump.

"Normally the last day in the Olympic athletics is more successful for Russia," she said. "We were expecting medals for the race walkers, Anna Chicherova and of course the 800 metres. It contributed to our success."

Asked to talk about her next big challenges, she responded: "I don’t want to look too far ahead as Rio or next year’s World Championships in Moscow. I have to complete the season in a good mood."

Her future plans, she added, were centred on doing something closer to home.

"I am thinking about ringing my mother, because it’s her birthday today," she said. "I asked her what I could bring her as a present, and she said 'Bring me a medal.’"

Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF
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