Athletics: Exhibition of the Masterkova class

One of the world's greatest runners is back on winning form after a long injury. Steve Downes spoke to her

THEY SAY that even the world's greatest athletes are just an Achilles tendon injury away from oblivion, and the double Olympic gold medallist Svetlana Masterkova nearly proved the point last year. But today, in the 1500m final, Masterkova may disprove another old sporting axiom: they never come back.

There have been greater comeback stories in sport, not least in Budapest this week, where Pawel Januszewski of Poland won the 400m hurdles barely two years after being read the last rites after a car smash. But if Masterkova manages to win the 1500m gold medal this afternoon - less than eight months after her first training session following serious injury - it will be a feat of considerable merit.

No woman had won the 800-1,500m Olympic double for 20 years until the relatively unheralded Masterkova managed the feat in Atlanta two years ago. Masterkova's relative obscurity was soon explained. The runner from Siberia, after a reasonable junior career, had married the professional cyclist Assiat Saitov and moved to Spain to be closer to her husband's team's base. While there, she took two years' maternity leave, missing the last European Championships in Helsinki and the 1995 World Championships.

Once she got back on the track in 1996, though, she was unbeatable, for as well as winning Olympic gold, she set world records at 1,000m and at the mile - a feat achieved in her debut at the distance.

Yet all that was nearly plucked away from her, as she hobbled from the track in pain and anguish after finishing a sorry 12th and last in the 1500m World Championship final in Athens last year, complaining of a sore Achilles tendon. From touching the highest of highs, Masterkova now thought she may be laid low permanently. She waited for the injury to heal, but it did not, and became infected.

Without regular training, Masterkova put on weight - tipping the scales 20lb heavier than when racing - and she pottered about the family home, doing the dishes and looking after her daughter Anastasia. But such a lifestyle soon lost its appeal, and in October last year she had an operation on the injury.

"If I look back at my career I have had more difficult times with injuries than good times," she says. "That's why I was so determined to come back. I wanted people to know that I am not a one season wonder."

"Athens was a big disappointment to me after my success in Atlanta," she said. She required three months of rehabilitation treatment after the operation last October, and only started training again in February.

Already, the rest of Europe's runners are regretting Masterkova's return. She has been beaten only once on the grand prix circuit this season, and then by an athlete - Gabriela Szabo - who has decided to avoid the 1500m and instead play the role of Sonia O'Sullivan's biggest threat in the 5,000m final tonight.

Four days after Szabo had beaten Masterkova at Monte Carlo, the two women raced again in Zurich. The Russian duly got her revenge over the little Romanian. When Masterkova said "I had to re- establish myself, show Gabriela who's the boss," you knew she meant business.

Similarly, Masterkova's performance in Friday's semi-final here was consummately dominant. Today, her biggest threats will come from another Romanian, Elena Buhaianu, who looked a threat in her semi- final, and Carla Sacramento, the Portuguese who took the world title last year in Masterkova's absence.

When she walked from the Nep Stadion on Friday night, the first person Masterkova spoke to was her doctor, Aleksiy Balakinev. Since the operation, he travels with Masterkova wherever she goes.

The suspicion is that Masterkova's tendon will never again be 100 per cent sound, and that her days of chasing records are over. "Times are not so important," she has said. "Winning is the main thing." A European gold medal today will provide useful evidence that Svetlana Masterkova is not a one-season wonder.

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