24 AUG 2008 General News Beijing, China

Hellebaut ready when it matters most

Tia Hellebaut clears 2.05m on her first attempt to secure high jump gold (Getty Images)Tia Hellebaut clears 2.05m on her first attempt to secure high jump gold (Getty Images) © Copyright

  There can be few better insults in Olympic history than Steve Ovett, describing the decathlon as, “nine Mickey Mouse events, followed by a slow 1500 metres”. Ovett, winner of the 800 metres gold in Moscow 1980 (and also a great 1500m runner) was taking the rise out of his British contemporary, Daley Thompson, who got the last laugh, by winning the 10-discipline decathlon gold in both Moscow and Los Angeles 1984.

The multi-eventers are often derided for not being world class at any single event. But not since Tia Hellebaut decided to concentrate on the High Jump. It was always her best event in the (indoor) Pentathlon and Heptathlon, and indeed she won the Belgian Championships in 2000/2/3/5.

But Hellebaut was principally a multi-eventer, setting national records for the Heptathlon from 1999 through 2003. Although she did compete in the High Jump in Athens 2004, finishing 12th. But a shoulder injury forced her to stop competing in the javelin, and the Heptahlon as well.

And everything changed at the European Championships in Göteborg 2006. Hellebaut, now 30, had finished a highly creditable fifth in High Jump in the Helsinki World championships the year before, but in Sweden, she set two national records, of 2.01 and 2.03 metres, to shock the favourites, and win the Euro title.

She won the Euro indoors the following winter, then reverted to the ‘multi’ earlier this year to win the World indoor Pentathlon (no javelin, of course). Now, with yet another national record, of 2.05 metres, she downs a woman, Blanka Vlasic who had not lost in 34 straight competitions.

“I still don’t believe it,” she said at her press conference. “I wanted to go home with a season’s best or a personal best. Jumping 2.05 in these conditions is very hard. It was good that I came from the heptathlon, so I can do it.”

“I never knew I could jump 2.05, (but) my coach told me, ‘you can jump the national record,’ and, you know, he’s always right. You never think about jumping 2.05 if you haven’t jumped 1.96 (during the competition). You need to prioritise.

“I never expected to beat Blanka, because for almost one year, she has been unbeatable. But it’s always nice to be at your best in big champoinships”.

The Belgian women had won relatively unforseen silvers in the 4x100m relay the previous night, and she said, “It was so long since we got a medal, then we won silver. That really inspired me”.

Much is made of the fact that she competes in spectacles, as does Dayron Robles, of course. It’s ironic that both compete in events, which require them to do a lot of jumping. “I started to jump in my glasses when I had an eye infection in 2005,” she says. “Actually, I feel really good with them. I can see much better with glasses than with contacts.”

Born in Antwerp, Hellebaut lives in the town of Tenderlo. A chemistry graduate, she speaks Flemish, Dutch, French and English.

But, in any language she is a winner, someone who (in her case, literally) can rise to the big occasion.

Pat Butcher for the IAAF