A miss is just a miss. Then again, when Blanka Vlasic crashed into the high jump bar with her final attempt at the rain-soaked King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels on Friday night it was a miss that cost the young Croatian woman who was named after Casablanca – the city rather than the movie – the not inconsiderable sum of $500,000 (£283,000).
Registering a third blank at 2.02m, Blanka lost the women's high jump on countback to Ariane Friedrich of Germany – and with it a half share in the $1m jackpot for going through the six-meeting Golden League season unbeaten. Her only other loss in 20 competitions this year having come in the Olympic final in Beijing two weeks ago, Vlasic must have felt like hitting the bar in the manner of Ivan Ukhov, the Russian men's high jumper who had to be escorted from the track in Lausanne last Tuesday. He is under investigation by the International Assoc-iation of Athletics Federations for allegedly being drunk in competition. In between his mazy run-ups and hapless flops under the high jump bar, he was reported by his fellow athletes to have been slugging vodka and Red Bull at trackside.
Punch-drunk on a surfeit of competitions, Vlasic was unable to find her wings when it mattered in Brussels. And so the Golden League jackpot – all $1m of it – went to an 18-year-old Kenyan who at the start of the summer was not among the 400 athletes listed in the Inter-national Track and Field Annual for 2008. It seemed appropriate, because ever since she burst on to the European circuit in May, with a stunning 800m win at the Fanny Blankers-Koen Games at Hengelo in the Netherlands, Pamela Jelimo has looked a million dollars.
Usain Bolt, of course, has been the show-stealing act of the 2008 track season, which the Jamaican finished with a flourish as he shot past Asafa Powell to win the 100m in Brussels in 9.77sec. Jelimo, though, has been a summer-long phenomenon of her own, utterly untouchable as a novice 800m runner. Not that she has been a complete novice at the distance. "It is not true that I had never run an 800m race before this year," she said. "I was a sprinter in the past, but I had run the 800m. My best time was 2min 12sec."
If anything, that lends a deeper perspective to the teenager's remarkable breakthrough. Eilish McColgan, the 17-year-old daughter of Liz McColgan, the former 10,000m world champ-ion, stands 131st in the British rankings this summer with an 800m time of 2min 12.22sec. Imagine her next summer, attacking the world record figures of 1min 53.28sec – set in Munich in 1983 by that great hulk of a Czech athlete, Jarmila Kratochvilova. Jelimo had a serious crack in Zurich nine days ago. She clocked 1:54.01, the third fastest women's 800m in history.
For so long deemed beyond reach, Kratochvilova's time suddenly looks vulnerable to a pencil-slim Kenyan girl who became her country's first female Olympic track-and-field champion when she won the 800m in Beijing, and who would not recognise the world record- holder if she passed her in the street. "I have never met her," Jelimo said of Kratochvilova. "I have not seen her races on video. I have never even seen a photograph of her. I only know her name and the time she ran for the world record.
"It is a tough record, but I would like to try for it. I will work harder and perhaps I can get it next year or the year after that." Time is certainly on her side. She will only be 19 on her next birthday, 5 December.
Until this summer, Jelimo was a 200m and 400m runner, just like her mother. Jeptoo Keter was obliged to quit her track career to look after a family that burgeoned to nine children. It was Jelimo's mother, now widowed, who persuaded her to step up in distance to the 800m – and on the fast track to Olympic gold and Golden League riches. Asked in Brussels on Friday night what she would do with her $1m, the jackpot winner replied: "This money will help my family."