The flying Croatian Blanka Vlasic delivered her Balkan nation its first World Championships medal of any sort tonight as she danced her way to the World title, winning the greatest women’s high jump final these championships have seen.
The lanky 23-year-old failed to qualify for the final two years ago, but is now top of the world after clearing 2.05m in a competition that saw five women sail over 2.00m in a competition for the first time ever in athletics history. When three cleared 2.03, that made history, too.
“I'm just relieved, I wanted it so bad, said Vlasic, who was sixth in 2001, Croatia’s previous highest finish in any World final. “Now I'm in a state of shock, I don't realise.”
Vlasic was an overwhleming favourite and she admitted the pressure on her was great. She has lost only once all year in 13 competitions, becoming the second best of all time.
“I was the favourite, so had to deal with a lot of pressure,” she said. “It was not easy to beat them.”
Croatia’s first medal was safely in Vlasic’s hands when she cleared 2.03 with one leap, and it turned into solid gold as she arced over 2.05m, leaving Russia’s Anna Chicherova and Antoinetta Di Martino to share the silver. The defending champion, Kajsa Bergqvist, of Sweden had a night she’ll want to forget, going out at 1.97 and finishing equal seventh.
The minor medallists took two efforts apiece to leap 2.03 – a personal best by 2cm for Chicherova with Di Martino equalling the Italian record she set earlier this summer.
“I feel extraordinarily good, this is amazing,” said Di Martino, who fractured her foot just three weeks ago. “I am rejoicing. When I cleared 2.03m I said to myself 'Mamma mia!’”
Vlasic celebrated her winning height with a Flamenco-like shimmy and once Di Martino and Chicherova had bowed out, she returned to the dancefloor for three valiant attempts at a 2.10 world record, her fourth assault on Stefka Kostadinova’s 20-year-old mark this season. Surely it will come soon?
“Only after clearing 2.03m and 2.05m did I have fun, not before,” she said. “My dance? In every competition, I actually have a different one. It gives positive energy to people in the crowd. You need to spice it up.”
By that time, the jumpers had been going for two hours. With 16 in the final the start had been brought forward by half an hour to 18:30 Osaka time, but then it coincided with three victory ceremonies which interrupted the flow and slowed the competition. So much for the officials’ good intentions.
It was a gentle start, though, with the bar at 1.85m. Suprisingly, Di Martino was one of only two to knock the bar off, although it was only a temporary blip. She was soon back on track and rose above that and the second height, 1.90, as if it was a training jump.
Vlasic had no such trouble. Arching over like a floppy child’s toy, the tall athlete was putting clear inches of the Osaka sky between herself and the bar with each attempt. The shorter Swede, Kajsa Bergqvist, jumping next, appeared less relaxed, requiring more and more effort through each of the pre-set heights.
As the bar moved up to 1.94, the qualifying height for this final, all 16 were still involved, with only the Czech Barbora Lalakova and Levern Spencer, the 23-year-old from St Lucia, having needed three attempts at 1.90.
But this was where the field began to shrink. Last year’s European champion Tia Hellebaut, who has been below par all year, was the first go out, followed swiftly by Lalakova, Spencer, and Miruna Mataoanu of Romania. This is what officials had expected in the qualifying round – now, after an hour’s competition, we had the 12 finallists.
The first sign of Bergqvist’s trouble came at 1.97. Two years ago the bar had inched up 2cm at a time. The adjustments tonight were tougher.
After 1.97, only four athletes, three Russians and Vlasic, owned clear records, while Di Martino had been perfect since her trouble at 1.85. The Spanish record-holder Ruth Beitia needed two but she also went on.
The big surprise came when Bergqvist crashed out. She hasn’t been at her best this year, but with 2.02 to her name she’s still world No3 and ending her reign at 1.97 was way below the Swede’s expectations.
As Bergqvist trooped disconsolately from the infield, six women moved on to 2.00m. Di Martino took the lead when she became the only jumper to clear on her first attempt, although the Olympic champion kept the pressure on, clearing second time, followed by Vlasic and Chicherova.
The most women ever to clear 2.00m in a World Championships final before tonight was three, but five went on to 2.03. With the pressure on, this was the time for the world's No1 to show her “bottle”.
Vlasic snatched the initiative, clearing with her first attempt as the three Russians and Di Martino all began to fail. The Italian showed her fighting spirit, wriggling over second time up to equal the national record she set back in June, while Chicherova also produced a personal best to join her.
It was too much for the Russian pair Yekatrina Savchenko and Yelena Slesarenko though, leaving Vlasic ahead of Di Martino and Chicherova as the bar moved on to 2.05. We had the three medallists, all we needed was the order.
Only Vlasic had ever cleared this height before, so the gold was her’s to lose. After two fails apiece, Vlasic prepared herself for her third during the uproar following Tero Pitkamaki’s massive gold medal-winning javelin throw. As if lifted up by the noise, she flew into the night sky like a comet and cleared the bar with space to spare.
She knew it was enough, and as she stepped off the mat, she put her hand in the air and shimmied her hips, delighting the crowd. “There’s a world record coming,” said someone in the press seats.
There wasn’t but Vlasic, not to mention Croatia, was happy enough with the gold.
Osaka 2007 News Team/mkb