An Olympic record toppedout a golden day for Australia who already had three medals in Beijing, silver in the women’s sprint hurdles, and two, a bronze and silver, in the men’s Race Walks.
Steve Hooker, 26, who joined the exclusive 6 metres club in January of this year, played a very cagey game tonight, conserving his energy with what were ultimately three very wise passes considering the large number of attempts he would have to make later in the evening.
While he opted out of 5.45 where the competition began, and opened at 5.60, he must have had a knot in his stomach when he first passed 5.70, and then elected to miss the next height 5.75 too.
Nerves of steel are needed to become an Olympic champion, and that’s what Hooker, the 2006 World Cup winner, showed tonight, as he played a tactical game of the highest order.
It was a white knuckle ride all the same for his coach, Alex Parnov, the father of Vicky Parnov, the 2007 World Youth champion in the women’s Pole Vault. With the exception of 5.60, Hooker cleared all his remaining heights this evening on this third and last attempt!
This was not so much a matter of a ‘last chance saloon’, this was more a ‘last chance pub crawl’, as 5.80, 5.85, 5.90 and his Olympic record of 5.96 were all left to last ditch, do or die efforts.
Hooker always had the height, but he was badly positioned just in front of the bar on all but his five successful vaults of the evening, and so on each of the other occasions he came down heavily on the cross bar.
When he did go clear on these five heights it was nearly always with an impressive margin indicating that he is very much in 6m form.
And boy did coach Parnov celebrate when his charge flew to the gold at 5.90. He leapt from his seat in the tribune over on to the track and sprinted towards the oncoming Hooker. They met in a dramatic embrace, Parnov jumping into the arms of his athlete, who held him off the ground in giant bear hug for a couple of seconds.
But this final was by no means just about one man and his coach. In fact until we reached 5.85, it was Russia’s World Indoor champion Yevgeniy Lukyanenko who was in the ascendancy having taken both 5.70 and 5.80 on his first approaches, with a pass at 5.75 in between.
The Russian also took three attempts to make 5.85, with his demise only coming at 5.90, at which point Hooker sailed over for gold.
Bronze was both a happy and a sad affair.
Happy because kneeling on the ground seemingly bent in prayer before his third and final attempt at his opening 5.45, Denys Yurchenko of the Ukraine, did subsequently manage to rescue his competition from disaster at its very beginning. Clutching his head in his hands in relief after he cleared that was the Ukrainian’s up-moment of the night.
The sadness came when after Yurchenko’s first time clearance at 5.70, he was seen limping, clutching his left leg behind the knee, and was obviously in great pain. He hobbled over to the officials to declare he would pass his next height (5.75), and as every other height of the night was announced and the same thing occurred it was clear that he would play no further part in the competition. Still, the bronze medal was some reward.
“I could not continue my struggle because I had a minor leg injury,” confirmed Yurchenko.
And how did some of the other finalists proceed during the night?
The crucial height was 5.60, when the 13 man final became 9 (8 having cleared the height + Germany’s Danny Ecker passing). 5.70 knocked out France’s Jerome Clavier and German Raphael Holzdeppe, the World Junior record holder.
There was a pass by former World Indoor champion Igor Pavlov of Russia at 5.70, and successes at that height (second time) for US champion Derek Miles and Russia’s Dmitry Starodubtsev, and (third time) for World bronze medallist Danny Ecker.
The German and Pavlov could not progress past 5.75, while Miles and Starodubtsev passed and then failed at 5.80.
“I was jumping really well by the end of the competition,” said the winner.
“Now there is a new breed of pole vaulter coming through. All of us will work together to push the World record, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was gone in the next few years.”
This was the first ever Australian medal in Olympic history at the Pole Vault and the Olympic record he beat, 5.95m, was set by 2004 Athens champion Tim Mack who did not make the US team to defend his title in Beijing.
Chris Turner for the IAAF