Few athletes went into the cauldron of competition at the Bird’s Nest stadium in the 2008 Olympic Games as strong a favourite as the elegant Croatian high-jumper Blanka Vlasic. Unbeaten for over a year, the 25-year-old Vlasic had dominated international competition over the preceding season. She won the world title in Osaka the year before Beijing, was named European Athlete of the Year and narrowly missed out on a share of the Golden League jackpot for an unbeaten season.
The event went according to script in the qualifying rounds in Beijing with Vlasic booking her place in the final with some comfort. There seemed no threat to Vlasic’s run to gold, least of all from an athlete for whom it could be argued high jump was not even her main event.
Belgium’s Tia Hellebaut had started her full-time athletics career in the multi-event heptathlon, and achieved some measure of success. She qualified for the 2001 world championships in Edmonton, Canada, finishing 14th in the final.
Yet as her heptathlon career was stuttering to reach stratospheric heights, it became clear that in the high jump she had a special talent and her focus began to switch full time to the field event.
Vlasic got an early taste of what Hellebaut could produce on the biggest of stages when the Belgian won the 2006 European title in Gothenberg with the Croatian left just outside the medal placings.
She produced arguably her best multi-event performance in clinching the world indoor pentathlon title in Valencia in 2008 but it was at Beijing that she produced the performance to earn herself a place in the history books.
As the bar reached 2.05m, there were only three competitors left in the event; Hellebaut, Vlasic and the Russian Anna Chicherova.
Hellebaut was the first to attempt the height and crucially she cleared it at her very first go. This was to prove key. Vlasic succeeded on her second attempt and Chicherova failed the height completely.
Under the countback rules in high jump, even though Hellabut had had more failures in the competition, the fact she cleared the leading height at the first attempt meant she was in gold medal position.
Hellebaut had one attempt at 2.07 before watching nervously as Vlasic tried in vain to clear the potentially gold medal-winning height. She couldn’t, and Belgium had its first-ever athletics Olympic champion.