Renaud Lavillenie raises the bar for France
The 2012 Olympic pole vault champion, Renaud Lavillenie took the sport to new heights in eclipsing Sergei Bubka’s longstanding world record with a jump of 6.16m in Donetsk (UKR) in February 2014. At Rio 2016 he came away with a silver medal after a thrilling battle for the Olympic title.
Not enough for Beijing
Lavillenie was introduced to the pole vault at an early age by his father, himself a pole vaulter, and immediately fell in love with the discipline, though his relatively small frame prevented him from making the most of his potential during the early part of his career.
It was not until he turned 21 and first came under the wing of his inspirational coach Damien Inocencio at the Stade Jean-Pellez d’Aubiere in Clermont-Ferrand in June 2008 that he began to come into his own. However, the improvements he made did not come soon enough for him to reach the Beijing Games in 2008. “I was clearing 5.30m in 2007 and I wasn’t even thinking of pursuing an international career,” he explains. “But when I went to Clermont the following year, I had access to facilities that helped me take a big step forward. I reached 5.70m, though it was still 5cm short of the Olympic qualifying standard.”
The Master of all he surveys
Lavillenie jumped 5.81m to claim his maiden international title at the European Indoor Championships in Turin in March 2009, and followed up three months later by joining the select band of pole vaulters to clear six metres, posting a new French record of 6.01m in Leiria (POR).
In the process the Frenchman had become the world’s leading pole vaulter and his country’s main medal chance at major championships. “I’d rather jump 5.90-5.95m across a season and be on the podium the whole time than just have one great result,” he said, explaining the importance of consistent performances, which have come most notably in the shape of four consecutive overall IAAF Diamond League wins since 2010.
Gold in London
By the time the London 2012 pole vault final came around, Lavillenie found himself fighting it out for gold with German duo Bjorn Otto and Raphael Holzdeppe, who both cleared 5.91m, a height at which the Frenchman failed with his first attempt. He then took a gamble, raising the bar to 5.97m for his final two attempts only to fail with the first of them.
Left with just one more chance to overhaul his rivals, Lavillenie hurtled down the runway, launched himself skywards and cleared the bar with plenty to spare to claim gold with a new Olympic record. In doing so he became France’s first gold medallist at the Games since Marie-Jose Perec won the 200m and 400m titles and Jean Galfione the pole vault crown at Atlanta 1996.
Lavillenie then shook track and field to its core in February 2014, while the eyes of the world were focused on the Sochi Olympic Winter Games. Accepting his customary annual invitation to the Pole Vault Stars event founded and organised by Sergei Bubka in his home city of Donetsk, the Frenchman trumped the world record of 6.15m set by the great Ukrainian in February 1993 at the very same venue, a height deemed to be unreachable. After clearing 6.01m at the third attempt, and with Bubka looking on, the reigning Olympic champion then jumped 6.16m at the very first time of asking, yet another crowning achievement in his stellar career.
Success with a smile
Explaining the secret of his success, the motorbike-loving Lavillenie says: “I never feel pressure when I’m down on the track. I enjoy myself out there and I don’t feel pressurised in any way. Over the last five years I’ve been on podium after podium and I haven’t felt restricted at all. Sometimes I’m there, 48 hours before a competition, putting tiles up in my bathroom, going out on my motorbike, playing football or basketball, and winning. I don’t like to do things that hold me back. There’s no miracle about it. The most important thing is to be as fresh as possible because the better you feel inside, the more you smile inside and the more success you have.”
Diamond League dominance
Despite his glittering career, Lavillenie has so far come short of adding the world championship title to his list of honours, winning bronze at Berlin in 2009 and Daegu in 2011, followed by silver in Moscow in 2013 and another bronze at Beijing in 2015. Yet elsewhere he has been dominant, winning three European Championships, two World Indoor Championships, four European Indoor Championships and all seven editions of the IAAF Diamond League from 2010 to 2016. To cap it off he was named IAAF Athlete of the Year in 2014 in recognition of his incredible world record.
Drama in Rio
The pole vault final at the Olympic Stadium in Rio was packed with drama from beginning to end, starting with the torrential rain which forced officials to delay the competition. Lavillenie began confidently, clearing his first four heights on the first attempt, up to 5.98m. At one centimetre above his Olympic record from London it put him solidly in the lead.
Step forward home favourite Thiago Braz Da Silva, who cleared 5.75m and 5.93m on the second attempts, then bypassed 5.98m to attempt 6.03m. His bold move paid off on his second attempt, leaving Lavillenie with work to do. The French athlete failed to clear the bar twice at that height, before unsuccessfully raising it to 6.08m on his final attempt. His failure left him with a silver medal while a delighted Da Silva celebrated in front of the ecstatic home crowd.
“It wasn’t out of the question, but four years ago I came out on top,” said Lavillenie of his silver medal. “There’s not much more to say, I gave everything and tried to do the best competition possible. I can’t fault anything I did, but Thiago had an incredible competition.”
Looking to Tokyo
Renaud Lavillenie has no intention of bowing out of the sport he loves just yet. Now thirty, he still has ambitious aims motivating him, in particular finally winning a World Championship title and above all reclaiming his Olympic title at Tokyo 2020.
“Age doesn’t worry me,” he said of his plans for the future. “I’ve had good years and bad years. But I still love to vault and to train. I’m aiming for 2020 because I want to get back on the Olympic podium, on the top step if possible.”