Convention wisdom in picking winners again took a backseat as World Indoor champion Yelena Slesarenko of Russia jumped an Olympic record 2.06 to win the gold over reigning World champion Hestrie Cloete of South Africa and, surprisingly, former European junior champion Viktoriya Styopina in a riveting High Jump competition.
Slesarenko’s winning height was also a world-leading performance for the season.
The new champion thanked Cloete afterwards for giving her the push which resulted in the win. “I came in full of hopes and I achieved my goal,” she said. “The competition was hard, but Cloete helped me jump better by jumping so well herself.”
Slesarenko and Cloete, the two co-world leaders coming into the competition, matched each other with perfect records on six jumps through 2.02 before the Russian cleared 2.04 on her first attempt. Styopina also leaped a PB 2.02 on her first attempt, but was third after having missed four times at earlier heights.
Jumping at the top of the order, Cloete failed a second time at that height before passing to 2.06, at which she also fell short on her single attempt, failing to win for only the third time this year in twenty competitions.
“She jumped well,” said the South African of her younger rival. “She was clearly the best today. I was jumping before her [in the order] so I should have been able to put more pressure on her, but 2.04 was too much for me today.”
Styopina found 2.04 out of reach and claimed the bronze medal at 2.02. Her performance was the best-ever third-place jump in Olympic history.
With the gold secured, Slesarenko then called for 2.10 to take a crack at Stefka Kostadinova’s seventeen-year-old World record of 2.09, and her third attempt at the height was enticingly close.
Amy Acuff of the US momentarily found herself in third place with a first-jump success at 1.99, but when three of her rivals responded with opening-round clearances at 2.02, she passed to 2.04 and exited there in fourth place.
Iryna Mykhalchenko of Ukraine, the 32-year-old late bloomer who only cleared 2.00 for the first time at age 30, took fifth place on count back against World indoor silver medallist Anna Chicherova at 1.96.
A major casualty in the early stages was the elimination of two-time World Junior champion Blanca Vlasic, who jumped only 1.89 before exiting at 1.92. The tall Croatian has been suffering from a respiratory infection the past two weeks and has not been in total form. She had been involved in both of Cloete’s defeats this year, and with a PB 2.03 only three weeks ago, was tipped as a strong medal contender.