05 AUG 2012 General News London, UK

Perkovic relishes first-ever athletics gold for Croatia

Sandra Perkovic of Croatia competes in the Women's Discus Throw Final on Day 8 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 4, 2012 (Getty Images)Sandra Perkovic of Croatia competes in the Women's Discus Throw Final on Day 8 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 4, 2012 (Getty Images) © Copyright
At 22 years of age, Sandra Perkovic was the second youngest finalist in the discus on Saturday evening; but her short charge towards becoming the first Croatian athletics gold medallist in the country’s brief history almost never happened. Three and a half years ago, just before Christmas 2008, the 18 year old Perkovic went into a Zagreb hospital for a routine operation on her appendix.

Something went wrong, and she developed septicaemia. The doctors treating her said that the seriousness of her condition normally resulted in death or disability in 90% of the cases they encountered. But her youth and strong constitution meant that she pulled her through, thus ensuring her and her country’s place in Olympic history.

It says much for the prospective Olympic champion, that when she explained her disability to your correspondent last night, it was in terms of how much training she missed. "I was ill for four months, and lost 25 kilos, and couldn’t train," she began, "but I soon came back to training, and won the European junior title the next summer."

That was in 2009, in Novi Sad, once in Yugoslavia, but now in neighbouring Serbia. Thereby hangs an ancillary tale, that of her coach Ivan Ivancic, a multiple Yugoslav Shot Put champion, who competed and then coached at the famous Red Star multi-sport club in Belgrade, now of course the Serbian capital.

At the outbreak of the Balkan wars in 1991, Ivancic moved to Zagreb, and has become famous as a coach to young field eventers. But now things have changed for Ivancic too, because Perkovic is the first senior champion he has guided. Together they have gone straight to the top, to the Olympic title.

Perkovic’s mother Vesna, and brother Marko travelled from Zagreb to see her win, as did her boyfriend; but suddenly the outgoing and demonstrative Perkovic came over all coy when we asked what his name was.

Her extrovert character was obvious on the infield. She was already leading the competition, but the moment she chose to launch her disk out to a new national record of 69.11m, was the moment that British national hero Christine Ohuruogu was introduced to the crowd, for her 400m semi-final. Perkovic just shrugged at the irony that such applause should have been for her winning throw. But when it came to her (and the event’s) final throw, she made sure the crowd made up for their omission. Holding her discus in front of her like a toy, she asked, nay, demanded that the crowd clapped her final attempt, which only served to underline her domination of the event, and ultimately of the crowd.

It was the same at the press conference. "I didn’t expect anything before the competition," she began, "but when I threw 64 metres (64.58m) on the first attempt, I was very satisfied. I knew then I could win."

Flanked by silver and bronze medallists, Darya Pishchalnikova of Russia and Li Yanfeng of China, Perkovic seemed to orchestrate the press conference, partly because of her better English, but mostly because of her strong personality and doubtless the satisfaction of victory.

And there was a lighter moment towards the end, when a Chinese journalist asked what advice the two others could give to Li to help her to become better. The Russian nodded to Perkovic to respond, which she did, saying, "I’m very happy to help her; as long as she only wins bronze medals when she competes against me." There was a final question about how her life might change now that she, and not a certain high jumper had won Croatia’s first Olympic gold. "I’m sure my life will change, but I don’t want to think about that right now. I just want to go to the medal ceremony, and get on with it." And with that she unilaterally closed the press conference, and went to pick up her richly deserved Olympic gold medal.

Pat Butcher for the IAAF

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