Isinbayeva raises the bar
The women's pole vault had only been introduced onto the Olympic programme four years earlier in Sydney. Since then its popularity had burgeoned, not least thanks to the exploits of Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva, who had already established herself as the greatest women's vaulter in the world.
Isinbayeva had been a gymnast as a child, but switched to pole vault after deciding she was growing too tall to reach the top in gymnastics. She was the world record holder – but she was not the world champion. That title had gone to the woman who had emerged as her greatest rival – fellow Russian Svetlana Feofanova.
The two athletes pushed each other to ever greater heights, and in the six months leading up to Athens 2004, the world record had been broken no less than seven times – twice by Feofanova and five times by Isinbayeva.
Their contest in Athens turned into a tactical battle par excellence. It was intensified by Isinbayeva’s failure to clear 4.70m, a height achieved by both Feofanova and the Polish vaulter Anna Rogowska.
By this stage Isinbayeva was guaranteed at least third place, but she was not interested in the bronze, so instead of another attempt at the same height, she moved the bar up to 4.75m. All three vaulters failed with their first attempt at that height before Feofanova produced a clearance to cement her lead. Rogowska tried twice more to match her, but failed and dropped out of contention in second place.
Isinbayeva again decided to raise the bar and with just one jump left she set her sights on 4.80m, 15cm beyond her previous clearance. Incredibly she went clear to into the lead. She then succeeded at 4.85m to put all the pressure on her great rival.
With the clock now ticking past midnight, it was Feofanova who was forced into a bold gambit. She had one final try left and moved the bar up to 4.90m, but could not make it, meaning that the gold was Isinbayeva’s.
To celebrate her crown, the new champion then went clear at 4.91m to break her own world record, earning a huge ovation from a capacity crowd, who had stayed specially to witness her incredible victory.