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With only one gold, Isinbaeva still the best ever

By / August 18, 2008



Pity poor Elena Isinbaeva. If Michael Phelps is now the best swimmer that ever was, then perhaps he could be called swimming’s answer to Elena Isinbaeva.

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If she could somehow win more than one medal for pole vaulting, the world might notice.

The Russian has broken the world record 23 times. She is the only woman to top the 5 meter barrier. And tonight, she won the Olympic gold with only two jumps.

“She is the Sergey Bubka of women,” says Olympic historian David Wallechinsky.

That is a compliment.

Sergey Bubka, we must understand, is to pole vaulting what Michael Jordan is to dunking and last-second shots.

Most of the night Isinbaeva paced across the stadium infield, baseball cap pulled low like blinders, waiting for the moment when she could get on with the business of trying to break her own world record – again.

By the end of the night, she was the last athlete standing in the Bird’s Nest, a stadium waiting to see something extraordinary.

She certainly kept them waiting. Whether it is a flair for the dramatic or a mindset worth of “Monk,” her pre-jump routine seems more suited for the cooking channel than a sports broadcast:

Hide under a white comforter in 90-degree heat to focus, add liberal amounts of sticky black pine tar and a dash of chalk to your hands, speak incomprehensibly in the direction of the bar, then propel yourself nearly as high as a two-story building with only a wobbly stick to help you.

There are others like her at these Games. Most obviously, there is Phelps. But there is also Ryoko Tani, five-time Olympic judo medalist and mother of a 20-month-old son, who claimed bronze here. There is and Michal Martikan, four-time Olympic slalom canoeing medalist, who won gold here.

All could make a claim to being the best athletes in the history of their sports.

But none – except perhaps Phelps – makes his or her case so convincingly. Before the Games, Isinbaeva said it would take a world record to win the gold medal. It turns out, she was talking about herself.

American silver medalist Jen Stuczynski, who had said she was coming to Beijing to “kick some Russian butt,” never cleared 4.85 meters – Isinbaeva’s second jump.

The rest of the field now dispatched, Isinbaeva got on with her own personal meet. There was 4.95 meters, just to get warmed up – and to ratchet up the suspense a bit, she failed to clear it until her third and final attempt.

Then it was on to 5.05 meters – a new world record. Again, the first two vaults failed, merely to show us all that this was, in fact, not as easy as baking a quiche.

Then, of course, on the final action of the night, she went up and the bar did not come down. World record No. 24.

American swimmer Aaron Peirsol yesterday called his teammate’s accomplishments in the pool a “Phelpsian feat.”

Perhaps it was an “Isinbaevan feat,” however poorly that trips off the tongue.