Trash talk backfires at the Beijing Olympics
Yelena Isinbayeva got the Olympic gold and a world record; American Jenn Stuczynski got the silver and a lesson in humility.
And we now have a new rivalry that should make woman’s pole vaulting fun to watch for many more years to come.
Big poles and big mouths don’t go together. Stuczynski knows that now. Pole vaulting isn’t basketball or boxing. It’s far too graceful of a sport for the kind of trash-talk she doled out before the Beijing Games.
“I hope we do some damage,” she had said, “and, you know, kick some Russian butt.”
Isinbayeva is Russian but she understands English just fine. The greatest women’s pole vaulter of all time heard Stuczynski’s challenge loud and clear.
“I am not deaf,” she said. “It made me really angry.”
Their head-to-head clash turned Monday night at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing into a showdown, with long poles instead of Don King.
First, some Cliffs Notes for those who didn’t tune into this saga, with its slightly musty Cold War whiff, in the run-up to the Olympics.
— Stuczynski: Tall, wholesome American, natural athlete; took up pole vaulting late, had a gift for it, quickly became second-best woman’s vaulter of all time, behind the Russian.
— Isinbayeva: Lithe former gymnast who switched to pole vault when she grew too tall as a teen, hasn’t looked back since. In a class of her own.
Like any good fight, the public announcer introduced the combatants first. Isinbayeva was presented last and got the crowd’s biggest roar. No mistaking who the Bird’s Nest was rooting for.
Isinbayeva is a bit like those supermodels who supposedly don’t get out of bed for anything less than a very lucrative photo shoot. Only when the bar has reached dizzying heights that most other vaulters can’t clear does Isinbayeva deign to take her first jump.
She’s just that good.
Monday night, her first jump was 4 meters 70 (15 feet, 5 inches). She soared right over. Seven of the 11 other vaulters had already dropped out by that point.
And so up the bar went, and up again. It’s that exquisite turning of the screw that makes pole vaulting so addictive to watch. Who’ll crack first?
Women’s pole vault has only been an Olympic sport since the Sydney Games in 2000. It was an instant crowd pleaser. Almost single-handedly thanks to Isinbayeva, the sport has grown by leaps and bounds since then. Stacy Dragila’s winning height in Sydney was 4.60 (15-1), which Stuczynski and Isinbayeva now sail over that in their sleep.
On Monday night, the last two hangers on dropped out with the bar at 4.80 (15-9), leaving Isi and Stu to fight it out for the gold alone.
The Russian won by KO. She cleared 4.85 (15-11). Stuczynski vaulted no higher than 4.80. Game over.
With the whole stadium now eating out of her hand, Isinbayeva wasn’t going to stop there. The crowd had only seen her jump twice—that was all it had taken for her to defend her Olympic crown.
She wanted to give them more … and perhaps rub that American nose just a little deeper in the dirt.
It was showtime. Isinbayeva-time. And that meant a world record.
First, she broke the Olympic record—her own, from Athens four years ago— as an appetizer.
Then, the bar went to a height it’s never been before, 5.05 (16-6 3/4).
She got it on the last of her three tries. She was celebrating even before she had fallen back to earth. She screamed. Clutched her face. Screamed some more. Did a forward somersault. Grabbed a Russian flag from someone in the crowd and set off on a lap of honor.
And that whole time, Stuczynski was made to wait, sitting on a row of plastic chairs, until Isinbayeva had cleared the magic height. It was the 24th time that the Russian had set a world record; she generally likes to eke them out one centimeter at a time.
Afterward, Stuczynski didn’t want to talk about her pre-game trash-talk, brushing off a question with an abrupt “OK, next.”
It was her first Olympics and her first medal, “I couldn’t ask for anything more,” she said.
Beaten but not cowed, she said she expects to catch Isinbayeva eventually.
“It’s just experience. She’s been in the Olympics before, she’s been in world championships, she’s jumped a decade longer than me, so it’s just a matter of time,” she said.
Isinbayeva tried not to be smug. She had done what she had set out to do: let her vaulting do the talking.
“I just wanted to prove who is the best at the Olympic Games.”
But she couldn’t resist one last little dig
“She must respect me and … know her position,” she said.
“Now she knows it.”