Athletics: Height the new fashion for women

Feofanova's Friday date in Birmingham a dress-rehearsal for a truly spectacular three-way battle in March
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The Independent Online

When Don Bragg cleared 4.70m to win the pole vault at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, he delighted the crowd by celebrating with a Tarzan yell. Four years later he was playing the lead role in the filming of Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, happily swinging from vine to vine in front of the cameras, when a court order halted the production because of copyright infringement. Bragg, an American, became a salesman of drug supplies instead.

Pole vaulting for height, rather than distance, was pioneered in 1843 by the upwardly mobile members of the football and cricket club in Ulverston, the Cumbrian town that was also the birthplace of Stan Laurel. It is only in the past seven years that women have been officially allowed to compete in the event, and it is a measure of their vaulting ambition that in 2003 three women have cleared 4.70m, the height that made Don Bragg king of the Olympic jungle.

The inching progress of Svetlana Feofanova, the return to form of Stacy Dragila and the emergence of Tatyana Polnova are threatening to make the women's pole vault the show-stealing act of the world indoor championships in Birmingham. Those who have tickets for the National Indoor Arena on Sunday 16 March are unlikely to be disappointed.

For the time being, it is Feofanova who is in pole position. And in preparation for the big event she will be at the Birmingham track next Friday night, familiarising herself with the runway and no doubt threatening her world indoor record once again in the Norwich Union Indoor Grand Prix. In the 18 months since she fought her epic duel with Dragila at the world championships in Edmonton, losing on countback after both women cleared 4.75m, the 5ft 4in flame-haired Muscovite has established herself ahead of the Californian Dragila as the world No 1.

Last winter she relieved the American of the world indoor record, improving it five times in 29 days, one centimetre at a time. Two weeks ago she broke the record by another centimetre, vaulting 4.76m for Russia in the Norwich Union International at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. Yesterday she failed at 4.77m at the European Indoor Cup in Leipzig but won the competition with 4.65m.

Feofanova's earnings in world-record bonuses alone stand at £155,000 in the past 13 months. At just 22, she has built up her bank balance and her reputation in the same calculating fashion as Sergei Bubka, the great Ukrainian vaulter who set 35 world records indoors and out. There was a time, though, when Feofanova could only afford a glass of milk and a bread roll as an evening meal on the tiny stipend she received from the gymnastics club she trained with.

The hardship was nothing new to her. She was brought up in poverty in Moscow after her father abandoned his family when she was two. "Life was very difficult," Feofanova reflected. "My mother sometimes had two jobs at one time, working in a factory and as a cleaner. Yes, it is easier now, but after the situation I grew up in I find it difficult to spend money. I only buy what I need."

Feofanova almost made it as a gymnast. She was a reserve for the Russian team for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. She switched to the pole vault two years later, and now her chief ambition is to win the race to break through the 5m barrier. In Glasgow she had three failed attempts at 4.82m, 1cm higher than Dragila's four-year-old outdoor world record, and last winter she made one ambitious but unsuccessful effort at 5m when testing a new pole in training. "I think maybe 4.90m is possible this summer," she said, "but 5m is certainly a possibility in the future."

Indeed it is, given the burgeoning progress Feofanova is making and the return to form of Dragila, the long-time pioneer of women's pole vaulting. The first world indoor champion (in 1997), the first outdoor world champion (1999) and the first Olympic champion (2000), Dragila spent most of last year hobbling around with a stress fracture of the left foot. In the past two weeks, though, she has twice broken her US indoor record, clearing 4.71m in Boston and 4.72m in New York. She has also attempted to break Feofanova's latest world record, failing at 4.77m in the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden. "I was angry that I didn't get it," she said. "But it's good to go home and still have something to work toward. I love it that Svetlana has the world record right now because it makes me very hungry to go out and train and get the record back."

Dragila is 31 now, Feofanova's senior by nine years. A farmer's daughter from Auburn, California, she spent much of her youth as a rodeo rider. She is not the only vaulter with Feofanova in her sights. Much closer to home – at home, to be precise – Polnova is emerging as another challenger to the Muscovite.

Vaulting in the Moscow indoor championships on Tuesday, the 23-year-old became the third woman to clear 4.70m. A native of the Krasnodar region of Russia, the former heptathlete did so in such an impressive fashion that it suggested that she can go much higher, too.

Polnova will get her chance to do so in Birmingham next Friday when she will challenge Feofanova. Dragila has politely declined, preferring to keep her powder dry for the world indoor championships. It promises to be explosive stuff from the female Tarzans of the vault.

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