Queen of the pole vault

AS the World Athletics Championships loom large this week heightening excitement among the aficionados, who are waiting with bated breath to see new frontiers conquered, the focus clearly is riveted on the Russian pole vaulter, Yelena Isinbeyeva. The sequence of victories achieved by the 23-year old Russian in the period preceding the Helsinki summit has only underscored her extraordinary talent that has contributed to the unfolding of a glittering phase in athletics history.

That Yelena will touch a new high in the next fortnight cannot easily be disputed. Not only has she shattered Olympic and World records with amazing consistency, she has also become the first woman to vault the magic height of five metres, which she did in the London GP. " It was my dream, I don't know how much higher I can go, may be 5.05 metres," she remarked.

"I think she is unique," commented Sergey Bubka, the high priest of vaulting after Yelana's five-metre clearance. This tribute, coming as it does from the man who set 35 world records and cornered six world titles apart from an Olympic gold, only confirms the range of Yelena's extraordinary proficiency. If Bubka carved a new dimension to what is often described as the most punishing event in competitive athletics, Yelena has injected the filament of glamour ever since women's vaulting entered the programme at the Sydney Olympics.

Pole vaulting dates back to 1850, but was never regarded as a glamour event. Not many opted for the use of the pole, whether plain bamboo, or the modern fibre glass variety, for fear of injury. Not surprisingly it remained a male domain for long, largely dominated by stars from the United States. The first attempt to inject an element of feminine charm should again go to an US athlete, Stacy Dragila, who, expectedly, clinched the first Olympic gold at the Sydney Olympics.

The advent of Sergey Bubka, the remarkable Ukrainian, completely transformed the quality and character of this event. A mind-boggling six- metre jump, which proceeded to a world record of 6.14m, left many wondering whether there could be a limit to human endeavour. Bubka revolutionised the technique, speed and synchronisation of the run up, vault and flip over the pole. The rhythm of his run, the accuracy of the plant and the ease and effortless grace with which he flipped over the cross bar provided a fascinating spectacle. Small wonder, spectators shifted their attention to the pole vault the world over.

It is this aura of excellence perfected by Bubka that Yelena is attempting to emulate. Ironically enough, Bubka was very sceptical of women excelling in the art of pole vaulting. But the rise of a handful of world class women competitors since the turn of this century only confirms how erroneous was Bubka's assumption.

" It was my dream to be the first woman over five metres. Now I would like to have 36 world records. It is my new goal, " said Yelena, setting her target to go one ahead of Bubka's 35 world records. This perhaps reflects Yelena's confidence in her prowess. And the way Yelena marches ahead gives many the hope that it is not a mere pipedream.

A close look at Yelena's career provides an insight into the effort that has gone into achieving this status. Trained as a gymnast initially, Yelena was pushed into pole vaulting by her coach who felt that his ward was too tall for gymnastics. And this was the turning point for launching a brilliant career. A four-metre jump at the age of 16 in the World Junior Championship at Annecy (France) did not signify much as Yelena was nearly 10 cm away from the medal finish. But within a year, Yelena touched 4.10 metres at the World Youth Games. This was the period when vaulters like Annika Becker, Emma George, Stacy Dragila and Rogowska were making waves at a different level.

Yelena touched 4.40m in the European Championship and raised the bar to 4.55m by 2002. Remarkable was Yelena's progression, and the athletics world came alive to the fact that a phenomenon was emerging in pole vaulting. Yelena managed only a bronze in the last World Championship in Paris, but left none in doubt that a lot more was to come in the next few years. A high watermark came in 2003 when she cleared 4.82m and went a centimetre higher at Ukraine.

Yelena was projected as a gold medal prospect at Athens 2004 — she set eight World Records that year — although track and field pundits expected a formidable challenge from compatriot Svetlana Feofanova. The fight between the two at Athens attracted predictable attention the world over. Feofanova vaulted 4.90m hoping for top honours, but Yelena sailed into history with a spectacular clearance of 4.91 to ensure a gold. Since then, Yelena is treading a golden path, vaulting higher and higher. The athletics community was not a wee bit surprised when she finally crossed the five-metre barrier.

The only thing missing in Yelena's illustrious career so far is a World Championship gold. This should come into her possession soon, if the track record of this gifted athlete is any guide.