Yugoslavian fans had high hopes for Dragutin Topic in the men’s high jump final at the Split 1990 European Athletics Championships but the hosts’ medal rush began just a few hours earlier courtesy of another precocious teenager in the women’s 1500m.
Snezana Pajkic defied the odds in the 1500m final, powering away from a field replete with Soviet, Romanian and East German favourites who had traditionally dominated the middle distance events in major European and global championships. On her lap of honour, an elated Pajkic ran into the arms of Topic who was to go on to win Yugoslavia’s second gold medal of the day.
Pajkic had amassed a stellar career as a junior, winning the 1500m title at both the 1987 and 1989 European Athletics U20 Championships as well as medals at the 1986 and 1988 World U20 Championships. The 19-year-old was certainly a bright prospect in the middle distances but it seemed the 1990 European Championships would come too soon in her career for Pajkic to make any sort of meaningful impact.
And her first two races of the championships did not suggest Pajkic would play any significant role in the final. Pajkic dropped out of the 3000m heats at the start of the championships and she was rather fortunate to progress into the 1500m final, trailing in seventh out of eight competitors in her heat. But luckily for her Pajkic was drawn in the faster of the two heats and scraped through on time with 4:09.53. In doing so she had fulfilled her rather modest pre-championships expectations.
"My main task in Split was to reach the 1500m final,” said Pajkic in a recent interview. “The race in Sarajevo [ahead of the championships where she ran a lifetime best of 4:08.21] was a good hint that I could do it. However, the story almost finished in the qualifications. I was seventh and made the finals by barely a second.”
Having squeezed through the heats, Pajkic was decidedly more relaxed in the final and the 19-year-old was far from overawed despite being one of the slowest on times and the youngest competitor by some margin. Her opponents included the Soviet favourites Lyudmila Rogacheva and Natalya Artyomova, East Germans Yvonne Mai and Ellen Kiessling and prospective favourite Doina Melinte from Romania who had won 13 of her 14 finals at 1500m and the mile in 1990 prior to Split.
With most of the world’s best middle distance runners hailing from the Eastern Bloc at this time, the calibre of the field would not have looked out of place in a world or Olympic final.
"I knew very well who I was running against - Melinte, Kiessling, Rogacheva - not to mention others,” remembered Pajkic. “I entered the competition relieved, without the expectation of doing anything. Luckily for me, the race went exactly the way that suited me: it was run in a group, I waited patiently for the last 100 meters and the finish. I knew that the other girls, regardless of their experience, could not follow me.”
The race unfolded just how Pajkic hoped but the home favourite also ran an astute and mature race to capture an unexpected gold medal. In a tactical and physical final, Pajkic kept herself in a good position to react, preserving her position towards the front of the pack and on the inside rail.
Her first move just before the bell was countered by leader Sandra Gasser from Switzerland who responded by giving Pajkic a sharp elbow or two. Undaunted the home favourite moved back on the inside and stayed in touch when Rogacheva launched her kick with 300 metres remaining.
Four runners were in contention for medals as they rounded off the bend for the final time and the crowd began to rise to Pajkic’s efforts. And the sprint finish that Pajkic has such confidence in had the desired effect in the home straight. The teenager moved wide and powered past Gasser and then Kiessling to huge acclaim from the crowd. She glanced over her left shoulder and then her right shoulder before raising her arms aloft in celebration of one of the most surprising outcomes at the European Championships. And for posterity, her time of 4:08.13 was also a lifetime best and national record.
But while her gold medal-winning compatriot Dragutin Topic went on to compete at six Olympic Games, Pajkic’s career on the track began to stall. She didn’t reach the 1500m final at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo and didn’t even qualify for the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
But Pajkic has kept herself involved in the sport and remains a highly influential figure in Serbian athletics. Pajkic has worked on delivering successful grass roots athletics projects in Serbia, has been a member of the Women’s Committee and Sport Committee in the Serbian National Olympic Committee and part of the Local Organising Committees for countless major athletics events in Serbia, including the Belgrade 2017 European Athletics Indoor Championships.
In recognition of her years of services to athletics, Pajkic was presented with the prestigious European Athletics Golden Pin in 2017, an award bestowed to those who have given special service and assistance to the development of athletics.