Let’s hear it for the small people. Even as she stood on the podium, Yelena Slesarenko was shorter than silver medallist, Blanca Vlasic, but the Russian was the one with the gold. It’s not always about being tall, as Stefan Holm would agree.
And so while Slesarenko entered this competition with a modest 1.96 this season, she rose to the challenge with gusto to take gold away from under the nose of the Croat. After all, all the pre-Games publicity had been about Vlasic’s recent 2.05 clearance and the absence of the Swedish World Indoor record holder*, Kajsa Bergqvist. It was just a matter of turning up.
But the Russian defending champion hinted at her secret weapon when she said: “Emotions can bring you 10cm above your level in big events.” It was not quite that much, but six proved to be enough as the Olympic champion outfoxed Vlasic in a fascinating battle of wills. “A grandmaster result,” she called it in an apt reference to Russia’s favourite mind-game. Bronze went to Spain’s Ruth Beitia with a season’s best 1.98.
It was when the bar reached 2m that things started to happen. Beitia was first to go, but she refused to be disappointed: “To get a medal makes me so happy. I was very nervous. Now my aim is to jump above 2m and break my Spanish record.”
And so it was down to the final big two. Considering it had taken the Russian three attempts at this height, the advantage appeared to have swung towards Vlasic, despite Slesarenko improving on her season’s best twice in succession. Vlasic only needed two goes at this height, but then Slesarenko came up for her first look at 2.02. Without any hint of doubt she cleared it, blew a kiss at the shuddering bar and strode confidently away, scenting victory.
Incredibly for someone who had had such a stunning season, it was here that Vlasic’s technique deserted her to the frustration of her coach who was gesticulating at his hips in desperation. The 2004 World Indoor bronze medallist responded with a last ditch effort at regaining the initiative by raising the bar to 2.04.
Slesarenko took up the gauntlet with two good efforts at what would have equalled her 2004 best. Now all she had to do was wait. With Vlasic going under the bar at her penultimate attempt it was down to her to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Slesarenko could not bear to watch and buried her head on her knees with her back to the apron. But the stadium announcer’s voice told her the rest as Vlasic failed to clear the bar.
Slesarenko ran ecstatically for the Russian flag and started a lap of honour.
Though clearly disappointed, the Croat was upbeat: “Of course I wanted to win. But when I remember that I was in hospital one year ago it is great. The last two-three attempts I had trouble with my technique. I do not know what happened.”
*World record pending ratification