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September 8, 2000
Russian greyhound joins middle distance gangGennady Fyodorov
European indoor 800 metres champion Yuri Borzakovsky says he took up running by mistake.
"So when I saw a group of young guys kicking a ball around at a local sports school, I thought it would be just for me."
Little did he know that those young guys were in fact track athletes whose coach had no objections to them playing soccer in their spare time.
"I signed up and by the time I found out the truth, I began to like running so I stayed on," he said.
With his surname, which means greyhound in Russian, Borzakovsky was surely destined to be a runner.
"I don't know if it came from one of my great-grandparents who was very fast but I know that it's a rare surname and there are only three people by that name in the whole world," he said.
His first name is more straightforward.
Borzakovsky was born on April 12 in Zhukovsky, a small town just outside Moscow named after Russian rocket scientist Nikolai Zhukovsky, and was himself named after Yuri Gagarin, who 20 years earlier to the day had become the first man in space.
Borzakovsky first grabbed the headlines when he ran a remarkable second lap to beat a strong field in the 800 metres at the European Cup in June last year.
Then a completely unknown 18-year-old, he was a good second off the pace at the bell but stormed through on the outside in the final straight to nip German world indoor bronze medallist Nico Motchebon at the finish.
The Russian used a similar strategy at this year's European indoor championships in Ghent, where he toyed with a high-quality field to speed past the outdoor and indoor European champion Nils Schumann of Germany on the final bend.
Borzakovsky said these tactics came not as a result of a thoughtful, sophisticated coaching scheme, but from pure fear.
"When I came from the junior ranks to compete against the men, I was simply scared of being pushed and shoved around so I began hanging back on the first lap, relying instead on my finishing kick," he said.
"Of course at the top level meetings like the Olympics I have to be careful not to let the field get too far ahead, otherwise it'll be over even before the real battle starts."
Vyacheslav Yevstratov, Borzakovsky's coach, warned against expecting too much, too soon from the skinny teenager with the crew cut.
"Basically, he is still a boy who competes against grown-up men," Yevstratov said. "Running against the Kenyans is like being thrown to the lions, you just hope to survive."
Borzakovsky did survive his first big test this season when he went head-to-head with several top African runners in the 800 metres at the Golden League meeting in Paris in June.
"When I caught the pack and was about to start my finishing kick, I got an elbow right into my rib cage which disrupted my breathing and slowed me down," he said, recalling the race where he finished fourth. "It was like welcome to the big-league club."
In Russia, some coaches even lobbied against sending him to Sydney, suggesting that it would be wiser to wait until the 2004 Olympics in Athens where he could be the top contender.
"Yes I've heard this rumour about myself but to be honest I'd love to do both, compete in Sydney and in Athens, not to mention winning a medal," said Borzakovsky.
But he said he felt no pressure to win in Sydney.
"In fact I'll be very happy just to make the final in the 800. Once you make a final, anything else is a bonus," he said.
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