The rising fortune of French pole vaulter Renaud Lavillenie is one of the talking points of this athletics year but nothing can quite convey the manner in which this promising but none-the-less also ran of 2008 has scaled the international summit of his event in less than a year.
So miraculous has been the ascent of the 22-year-old’s star that the organisers of the Meeting AREVA, the fourth fixture of the ÅF Golden League 2009, have even been prepared to change their original schedule to include a men’s Pole Vault on Friday 17 July in the Stade de France, so they can showcase currently one of the hottest properties in athletics to his home crowd.
When Lavillenie successfully floated over 5.96m in Aubière (14 June), this winter’s indoor phenomenon became a true prospect for the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics, Berlin, Germany (15 – 23 Aug), when a week later he cleared a national record of 6.01m to take the European Team title in Leiria (21 Jun) the world began to talk medals.
France has uncovered an athletics gem at a vital moment for the sport nationally. Traditionally one of the global powerhouses France could only muster one silver medal, a surprise one at that, in the men’s 3000m Steeplechase at the Beijing Olympics, ending 29th in the medal and 14th in the placing table.
Roman Mesnil, the World silver medallist, and Jérôme Clavier took the French tickets to Beijing, and Lavillenie without the ‘A’ standard did not join them, ending his 2008 season with an outdoor career best of 5.65m. True he rose to an indoor personal best of 5.81m on 5 December but that was in reality an early start to his 2009 indoor campaign. He had actually finished the 2008 indoor season with a career best of 5.70m, but did not manage to qualify for the World Indoor Championships final.
5.81 was very much an auspicious number for Lavillenie last winter, as with that height he gained his first international tour victory of the season in Moscow (1 Feb) and triumphantly concluded his indoor programme with the European title in Turin (8 Mar).
The weight of history
If there was to be a saviour for the present fortunes of French athletics then the Pole Vault was always likely to be one of the obvious sources, as the country has long been renowned for its talent and coaching in this event.
French pole vaulting has an illustrious history which stretches back to the first of her three Olympic champions in this discipline Fernard Gonder in the Interim Games of 1906, with Pierre Quinon the next winner in 1984, and Jean Galfione, the victor of 1996. It was a double celebration in Los Angeles as tying for a bronze medal behind Quinon’s gold was Thierry Vigneron.
There have been a number of Olympic near misses too with Patrick Ababa (1976) and Philippe Houvion (1980) in the unluckiest of all-positions, fourth, and a posse of other finalists such as Jean Michel Bellot, Philippe D’Encausse, and Philippe Collet whose talent it is impossible to do justice to in this short summary.
There has yet to be World title but thanks to Vigneron (1987), Galfione (1995) and Mesnil (2007) there have been minor global medals, and the memory of the glorious World record era of the 1980s whose heights were provided by Vigneron, Quinon and Houvion also acquaints one with the true legend which is the French school.
National and international challengers
It’s a heavy mantle of tradition for a 22-year-old to have thrust on his shoulders especially as two of Lavillenie’s more established team-mates Mesnil and Clavier are by no means finished with their own pursuit of glory. Clavier, 25, knows all about the national expectation, as he was the French hope last summer coming seventh in Beijing.
Mesnil is ten year’s Lavillenie’s senior but he reminded the young pretender in Sotteville-lès-Rouen as recently as 5 July that the reigning World silver medallist is no spent force beating the youngster by 10cm. Lavillenie took his revenge two days later in their last competition in Lausanne (7 July) but both men were upstaged by Australia’s Olympic champion Steve Hooker.
>>POSTSCRIPT - tonight 14 July in Reims (FRA), Lavillenie (1st, 5.82m - first attempt) and Mesnil (2nd 5.82 - second attempt) beat Hooker (3rd, 5.77 - first attempt).
Hooker is absent from Paris on Friday but Mesnil and Clavier will challenge Lavillenie, who is one of only 14 men who have surpassed 6m outdoors in history (17 indoors and out). Two of his fellow exclusive club members Toby Stevenson (USA) and Paul Burgess (AUS), along with Germany’s Danny Ecker who has accomplished that feat indoors, are also on the current Paris entry list. Others to look out for are Beijing fourth placer Derek Miles (USA) and two in form Germans Alexander Straub and Malte Mohr both over 5.80 this season.
Chris Turner for the IAAF