Updated 25 February 2008
Olga KOMYAGINA, Russia (800, 1500, 3000m)
Born: 10 February 1974, St Petersburg
Coach: Viktor Morozov
Olga Komyagina has made a name for herself from athletics but not for winning races. “The best pacemaker in the history of athletics” is her unofficial title and her talent for it has made her presence obligatory at any competition where organisers hope for fast times in the women’s middle distances.
Komyagina started athletics the same way as many Russian children – she just saw the club when passing by and decided to try it. Early results were not promising and several times she was on the point of giving up. “The whole of my professional career is only thanks to my Mum,” Komyagina said. “She has always stood by me and inspired me when I said I didn’t want athletics any more. In juniors I almost always was fourth – and this is the worst place in sports!”
The “hare life”, as she calls it, started for Komyagina in 1999. In Russian a pacemaker is called a hare from the analogy with English dog racing in which a hare runs in front and the greyhounds give chase. This is, perhaps, a bit offensive but Komyagina says: “I try to smile at this. It’s my life. There is no sense in feeling offended.”
In 1999, Komyagina took part in her first IAAF World Indoor Championships, in Maebashi, Japan, where at 1500m she finished fourth as usual. She led from the start, choosing her own pace, but she lacked the speed at finish. After the race, she was invited to try being a pacemaker and accepted because the financial award was significant.
“My first race as a pacemaker was in 1999 in Zurich,” Komyagina recalled. “It was a 1500m and I had to lead the first 1100m. That is really long. After the first 500m I was so nervous, and felt so completely exhausted, that I was even thinking of giving up. But I managed to fulfill my job and everyone liked it.”
The choice between personal ambition and money was difficult. Since 2000 Komyagina has run almost 90 per cent of her outdoor races as a pacemaker. “A good pacemaker should not just follow the pace,” she says. “He should lead the group and not simply run away. When you see a pacemaker running first and the group 10 metres behind that is wrong. He does not help anybody this way. That is why I always orientate myself in relation to the people behind me and try to feel if they are ready to follow.”
Komyagina does not count the world and European records set with her participation but there are definitely at least five. She has been the favourite pacemaker of such world stars as Berhane Adere and Gabriela Szabo. Now the world record holder at 5000m, Meseret Defar, makes her record attempts only with Komyagina’s help.
“I like Meseret because she always thanks me even if it is not a record,” the Russian says. “I know she insists that I run with her at every major race. It is a bit hard for me because one should be really in a brilliant shape to lead Meseret Defar. I feel extra responsibility with her. But still I never think that I share her world record. All the fame belongs to her. And what about me? I was just somewhere nearby, nothing more”.
Komyagina continued occasionally running also for herself and, in 2002, she finished 6th over 1500m at the European Indoor Championships, in Vienna. In 2003 she was 6th at the Russian Championships at the same distance but did not qualify for the World Championships. In 2004, Komyagina decided to take a break and gave birth to her daughter, Katya.
“I never doubted that I would come back,” she said. “My husband also was a professional athlete, and he gave me great support”. Her husband is Innokenty Zharov, who competed in the 1996 Olympic 400m and who has a PB 45.80. The comeback proved surprisingly easy. In 2005 she again was a pacemaker at major races, although she finished only 10th over 1500m at the Russian outdoors, in Tula.
“The further the better” is the rule applying to Komyagina’s last three seasons. “After the childbirth I at last started to look like an athlete. Before I had been plump, so nobody even believed I was a sportsman! One may laugh at it, but for me this was really like a complex, and I am happy now I have lost weight.”
In 2006, Komyagina won the 1500m at the European Indoor Cup, in Lievin, France, and was third in the 3000m at the Russian Indoors. This was good enough to aspire to make the Russian team for the 2007 World Championships, in Osaka. At the Russian trials she was third, great progress indeed, but as only the first two qualified, this was even worse than her usual fourth place.
“I hoped to qualify but I tend to be realistic,” Komyagina reflected. “I could not refuse being a pacemaker as it is my job. But I tried to compete as much as I could as I really wanted to be in the Russian team. It is only my fault that my effort was not enough.”
In 2008, Komyagina enjoyed the best of both worlds – leading Defar to her season’s best indoors at 3000m, in Stuttgart, and placing second to Yelena Sidorchenkova over 3000m at the Russian Indoors to qualify for the World Indoor Championships in Valencia.
“From the economic point of view, if I am in the best six at the World Championships it would pay my costs as I had to refuse all my pacemaker races recently,” she said. “Of course it would be much easier just to be a pacemaker. And I cannot be sure I can be in the best six in Valencia. But I will take a risk because I am a sportsman, after all.”
Komyagina is obviously progressing – both in the results and in her tactics when choosing the races to run during the season. Now she does not waste her energy on secondary goals. She runs as a pacemaker only in major races, like the Golden League or world record attempts, and competes herself at smaller competitions.
What about the 2008 Olympics in Beijing? This is still the main question on her agenda. At her favourite 1500m one place has almost for sure been booked for the world indoor record holder and 2007 outdoor world silver medallist Yelena Soboleva. For the other two places there are lots of challengers, including World Indoors 2006 silver medallist Yuliya Fomenko. It would be easier to qualify at 5000m but this distance remains too far for Komyagina. And what may be even more important, in the presence of brilliant Ethiopians, Defar and Tirunesh Dibaba, at the Olympics, for Komyagina there is almost no chance for success.
“My coach, Viktor Morozov, insists that I try to qualify for the Olympics,” she says “I realise that, in this case, I will have to refuse all my pacemaker races. And this is hard, both mentally and economically. It is one thing when I leave home for long, do not see my daughter, but come back with money. And it is completely another, when I have to spend all my time away at the training camps and there is still a high possibility that I come back home with nothing.”
Despite the money, being a pacemaker is an overshadowed job. No matter how well you run, you always stay with the DNF mark, and almost always leave the stadium unnoticed. But, thanks to her open character, and broad views, Komyagina became one of the few pacemakers in history known to the public. Has she become a pacemaker, though, due to a lack of talent?
Komyagina gives her answer. “When I was younger, I so much liked the disco and clubs that I could not just sit in my room when abroad as all the leaders do. I wanted to see the world around me and I am not sorry about it. But the main reason I think is that I am too gentle and I have always liked to help others. Big stars have tough characters, they must be even aggressive. I completely lack this quality.”
There is no sense in asking if she is sorry that she is still mainly a pacemaker. Of course she is. But Komyagina has justified herself: “For me it is better to be the best in something rather than about 10th in another thing, even if it is more prestigious. Not everyone can be the champion”.
800m: 2.00.64 (1999)
1500m: 4.02.32 (2000)
Mile: 4.23.49 (2008)
3000m: 8.35.67 (2006)
1500/800/3000: 1997: 4:13.81/-/-; 1998: 4:04.99/-/9:03.46; 1999: 4:05.44/2:00.64/8:42.58; 2000: 4:02.32/-/8:58.19; 2001: 4:03.98/2:00.66/8:50.81; 2002: 4:05.71/-/9:06.06; 2003: 4:04.77/2:02.46/8:47.62; 2005: 4:12.85/2:05.15/-; 2006: 4:04.33i/-/8:35.67i; 2007: 4:04.5/2:02.84i/8:43.95; 2008: -/-/8:48.71i.
1998 6th Grand Prix Final (3000, Moscow) 9:03.46
1999 4th World Indoor Championships (1500, Maebashi) 4:06.18
1999 4th Grand Prix final (1500, Munich) 4:16.83
2002 6th European Indoor Championships (1500, Vienna) 4:11.97
2003 6th Russian Championships (1500, Tula) 4:04.77
2005 10th Russian Championships (1500, Tula) 4:12.85
2006 3rd Russian Indoor Championships (3000, Moscow) 8:35.67
2006 1st European Indoor Cup (1500, Lievin) 4:10.23
2006 16th World Cross Country Championships (4 km, Fukuoka) 13:16
2006 8th Russian Championships (1500, Tula) 4:08.01
2007 4th Russian Indoor Championships (3000, Volgograd) 9:01.93
2007 3rd Russian Championships (1500, Tula) 4:05.93
2008 2nd Russian Indoor Championships (3000, Moscow) 8:48.71
Prepared by Natalia Maryanchik for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2008.