Now for a surprise that was a very big one. Who would have thought that Tia Hellebaut was going to become the last track gold medallist of the Beijing Olympic Games (the only other medal in Athletics still to be awarded is that in the men’s marathon)? Who would have thought that Tia Hellebaut was going to become the first ever Belgian woman to win an Olympic title in Athletics and the first Belgian of either sex to win gold at the Olympics since 1964!
Probably just two people. Herself and World champion Blanka Vlasic, the outstanding favourite for gold coming into these Games.
“I knew Tia would be a tough opponent,” said Vlasic. “I even told my coach before the final that I thought she was going to be a hard one to beat.”
And indeed Hellebaut, the reigning European champion and World Indoor Pentathlon champion equalled her own personal best and national record 2.05 with a superb first attempt which would prove the winning jump of these Olympics.
“I surprised myself today,” said Hellebaut. “I am really happy, I thank everyone who made this happen. I get a lot of support from my coach, my family, my friends.”
As it turned out, Vlasic’s only mistake up until 2.05, her first time try at that height, made her lose her 34 winning streak at just the worst time of the year.
“I am so tired,” said Vlasic. “There were lots of expectations, lots of pressure, I’ve had so much media hype, it was not easy to perform tonight. But I’m happy, I think I did a good job. Of course I wanted the gold medal but today was a good fight and I’m proud I was part of it.”
With 15 athletes qualified for tonight’s final, a record nine athletes were still in contention at 1.96 with the major casualty being World silver medallist Antonietta Di Martino.
As the bar was raised to 1.99, six stayed alive as World number 2 Ariane Friedrich of Germany failed to perform in a major championship for the second time of the year. She was joined by Ruth Beitia and Emma Green as the only three to bow out at that height.
Next height was 2.01 and again a record number of athletes were still in contention. The first to fail was US champion Chaunte Howard who would eventually finish in sixth having cleared 1.99 with her third attempt.
The next one out was World Indoor medallist Vita Palamar whose tactics didn’t pay off. After two failures at 2.01 she again failed badly at her last chance at 2.03 and had to settle for fifth.
The battle for the medals started at 2.01, a height which is usually seen as a winning one or at least enough for a medal. Never in Olympic history has 2.01 been left out of the podium.
Tonight was going to be a first, as in addition to Vlasic and Hellebaut the Russian duo of Yelena Slesarenko and Anna Chicherova also sailed over.
At 2.01m the standings read: 1. Vlasic, 2. Chicherova, 3. Hellebaut, 4. Slesarenko. Up until that moment, Vlasic had not one single failure, Chicherova had a third time scare at 1.99 from which she recovered to go over the next height the first time around, while Hellebaut and Slesarenko needed to jumps to clear 2.01.
Vlasic was the first clear at 2.03 and she did it with such a big margin that she jumped off the matt dancing to Pink’s ‘get the party started.’
To her surprise she didn’t know two other women were to join her in what she would hope was going to be an exclusive party. Chicherova went clear the first time around and Hellebaut took two tries but her second one hinted there would be more to come.
Defending Olympic champion Slesarenko had three failures and would not retain her title. Not only that, she would finish out of the medals.
For the first time in the history of the event, three women were still in contention at 2.05. It was game on.
Blanka was first up and failed her first attempt of the whole evening, certainly she didn’t expect it would cost her so much but it did. After Hellebaut cleared the first time around, Vlasic found herself chasing for the first time in the season. She did respond with a superb 2.05 second round effort but she needed more if she wanted gold.
It wasn’t going to be tonight. After performing superbly all night, Vlasic failed three times – quite badly – at 2.07. Hellebaut would be the champion tonight.
“After the World Indoor Championships, I was injured and I couldn’t run for 7 weeks so I wasn’t able to do too many competitions. But it’s ok because I need a lot of mental strength so maybe this one was the easiest competition,” explained Hellebaut.
“My technique was very good. Today I just thought ‘run and jump and it’s going to be fine.’”
A lot of questions were thrown at Vlasic. One of the real characters of our sport she responded: “Do you thing I didn’t do a good job today? I was prepared for everything. I was prepared for all the girls being able to jump 2.05. You cannot allow yourself to be surprised because it’s the Olympic Games and what happens happen.”
2.05 proved too much for Chicherova who added an Olympic bronze to her World silver medal from Osaka: “It is a pleasure to be on the podium with these great athletes. I am proud and happy with the bronze because tonight I could well have gone home with no medal.”
The last word has to be given to Hellebaut, winner of arguably the best High Jump competition at a major championship: “Blanka knows that with 2.05 I don’t need to apologise for winning gold.”
Famously the Belgian record holder had apologised when taking European gold on Kajsa Bergqvist’s home soil two years ago, tonight she did too good a job to feel sorry for second place.
Laura Arcoleo for the IAAF