A delighted Osleidys Menendez after opening with a 71.70m World record (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Menendez - World record, World champion, and defending World Athletics Final winner

MonteThe Cubans specialise in unusual first names for Latin Americans and Osleidys does not have obvious roots in Castilian Spanish. But the reality is much stranger for the Cuban World Javelin champion and record holder.

According to Cuban statisticians her name is actually registered as Olisdeilis in the Civil Register. The more current version, by all accounts, is a simplification forced on her by family and friends.

This is just as well for the announcers at the World Athletics Gala to be held at the Hotel Fairmont, Monte-Carlo, on Saturday night (10) because if Menendez wins the vote for Female Best Performance of the Year it will make their task that much easier.

Major awards throughout her young career

The opposition is stiff, of course, with Yelena Isinbayeva and Tirunesh Dibaba significant rivals, but it is a sign of just how far Menendez has come that she can be mentioned in the same breath as the Russian Pole Vault supreme and Ethiopian track phenomenon. Not that the native of Marti in western Cuba is a stranger to prizes. Ever since she started to compete on a world stage, the 24-year-old has carried off every major medal in the sport as well as a fair number of accolades.

After her second World junior crown she was named as the best under-19-year-old in the world in 1998 World Athletics Gala and the acclaim in her home country ranks her alongside Javier Sotomayor. But this year’s World Athletics Gala award would sit well amongst her achievements for that would rank her alongside the only other Cuban female to have been on stage in the Gala, Ana Fidelia Quirot, who lifted the prize of World Female Athlete of the year in 1989.

Many Cuban and regional ‘firsts’

As far as achievements go, Menendez is well qualified. Anyone who thinks back to that night in Helsinki when in round one of the final she launched the Javelin to a World record of 71.70 metres might be tempted to hand over the prize right now. That throw gave her more points in the IAAF World Ranking for single performance than anyone else this year, a reflection of its quality.

The first Cuban woman to hold a World record when she threw 71.54 in 2001, in Helsinki, this summer she then became in one fell swoop the first Latin American or Caribbean woman to break her own World record. Since 2001 she shared the area distinction with Jamaican 400m runner Marilyn Neufville of being the only woman to set a World record, but now she was out on her own with two.

The province of Matanza in the west of Cuba where Menendez hails from is proud of its cultural and sporting past. The provincial capital city, also called Matanza, was dubbed the ‘Athens of Cuba’ in its heyday because of its intense cultural activity. It was where the national sport of baseball was first introduced to the country and since the Cuban Revolution the province has played an important role in Cuba’s Olympic roll of honour, boasting 11 gold medallists, including Menendez and Sotomayor.

Never looked back after debut aged 14

Coached, as she still is, by former javelin thrower Dionisio Quintana, it was at the age of 14 that Menendez first came to notice. Invited to the Memorial Aurelio Janet, she hurled the spear 53.98m and the die was cast. Two years later she clinched her first World Junior title in Sydney and repeated the feat two years later in Annecy, the only Cuban to achieve the double. A year later with the new specification javelin she set a world age-19 record of 66.49m and took Pan-Am gold. In 2000 she returned to Australia as a 20-year-old to secure her first Olympic medal, bronze.

Glitch year

The following year the juggernaut rolled on with her first World Championship senior gold in Edmonton, and her first world record, set appropriately in Greece in Rethymno. After two years of its existence the new javelin breached the 70-metre mark with 71.54m. But then there came a glitch in 2003 when Menendez could finish no higher than third in the Pan-Ams and a lowly fifth in the World Championships.

But what a comeback

Her resurgence was nothing less than spectacular. In Sydney, she had played a bit part to Trine Hattestad’s gold medal winning Olympic record of 68.91m, but in Athens she swept that from the record books by the huge margin of two and a half metres. In the first round, accompanied on its way by her trademark ear-piecing shriek, the javelin hit the turf at 71.53m, gallingly one centimetre shy of her own World record.

Killing off the opposition early is another of her trademarks and she was to repeat the dose in Helsinki, though Germany’s Chritina Obergföll who responded with a European record of 70.03m would argue that verdict. Menendez then did something unheard of at this level by draping herself in the Cuban flag for a photo opportunity. The only thing missing was a press conference and had journalists been allowed on the infield with five rounds still to go she would no doubt have obliged.

Finally she had combined global gold with the gobal record that had eluded her in Athens, a feat that only the elect can achieve.

Mike Butcher for the IAAF