World Athletics Championships: Yelena Isinbayeva scales new heights of popularity

Pole-vaulter will be lifted by crowd after falling short London Olympics


For Jessica Ennis-Hill in August 2012, read Yelena Isinbayeva for the same month in 2013. Much as Ennis-Hill was the athletics poster girl inside the Olympic Stadium last year, Isinbayeva is exactly that for the World Championships in Moscow, which get under way today.

Moscow and – in particular – the Luzhniki Stadium, where the Worlds are being held, has to date nicely bookended the career of Isinbayeva, who was born in Volgograd, 600 miles away from the capital.

It was here that she won her first title and where last month she was crowned Russian champion with a clearance of 4.75 metres, suggesting the two-time Olympic and world champion, and world record holder, was approaching her best form at just the right time.

On the eve of her home event, she insists: “I don’t feel pressure at all. I will enjoy every moment on the track during the World Championships. I’m just so proud of Russia that Moscow will host such an event as the World Championships. It’s the first time in the history of athletics.”

Her comments read a bit like those of a tourist guide but she plans to be anything but that at what could be her last chance to win a major medal at world level.

Last month, she had suggested there was a finality to her appearance at the Worlds, that it would be her last competition before retirement. But she backtracked on that, saying after Moscow she planned to take time out from the sport to have a baby.

“I just decided that I would like to start a family after the end of the summer of 2013 competing,” she said. “I didn’t say that I will retire. After having a baby I am planning to come back to the professional sport as many of my team-mates have done and I will try to take my third Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro.”

To do that would be a gargantuan feat. Already Isinbayeva is 31 and injuries have taken their toll – a leg injury forced her to miss a large chunk of time competing this summer.

And there is a new breed of vaulters seemingly yet to peak. One is Britain’s Holly Bleasdale, who has been forced out of the Championships with injury. The other of note is Yarisley Silva. The 26-year-old Cuban has been the form vaulter this  year with the five leading clearances of the season, including a best of 4.90 metres.

That is still some way off Isinbayeva at her peak – her world record stands at 5.06m. Of her chances of getting near such heights again – more than two feet higher than a double-decker bus – she is not totally sure.

“You never know in sport what will happen on the track,” she says. “I will do my best and I am confident that I will get huge support from my home crowd here. Time will show how high I can go.”

It is 15 years since Isinbayeva first took up the pole vault. From five to 15, she had been a budding gymnast but left her first sporting love as she was considered too tall for the discipline at 5ft 8in. Six months after picking up the pole, she won the World Youth Games here – in what was only her third time in competition.

Looking back, she recalls: “It was a strange feeling the first time with the pole. It was totally different, alien then to gymnastics. I remember turning up and the indoor hall was just huge compared to the gymnastics hall where I trained. The other thing I remember which surprised me was that the girls and boys were training together, which hadn’t happened with me in gymnastics.

“I’d say the beginning wasn’t difficult for me – it just felt right, and still does. I am still excited each time I compete. I still love the pole vault.”

That has not always been the case. During the 2010 season she took a break from the sport, exhausted by the constant training and competing. Her only major title since her return was the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul last year.

She had gone into the London Games tipped by many to win but struggled in the blustery conditions and came away with the bronze medal, with a best clearance of 4.70m.

Looking back on the events of last summer, she says: “Yes, I had a chance to win my third Olympic gold in London but I lost the chance. I have no regrets, though. I am happy with all my victories and I learn from all my defeats. Defeats make me stronger – the victories just show me that I am on the right way. I am very proud of myself. I am proud of the glory, fame and all the victories.”

Tellingly, when asked who will take over her mantle as the dominant force in pole-vaulting, she says simply, “no one”, perhaps with an element of mind games before the Championships begin. That said, she believes Britain’s Bleasdale has a chance to be among the front-runners.

“She’s showed very good results in the past with a jump of 4.87m,” says Isinbayeva. “My opinion is she can definitely improve on that with the right coach.”

Whoever comes to the fore, however, it is unlikely that anyone will quite dominate the sport again as the Russian has with her 17 world records outdoors and 13 indoors.

Beyond Bolt: Five international stars to watch

Ashton Eaton (US, decathlon)

Outside the sport, the world record holder is arguably one of global sport’s least-known star athletes. He can run the 100m in 10.21sec, long jump to 8.23 metres and run the 400m in 45.64sec.

Blessing Okagbare (Botswana, 100m/long jump)

The superbly named Botswanan plans to double up in the 100m as well as the long jump. She has the speed and the distance.

Brianna Rollins (US, 100m hurdles)

The 21-year-old has this season taken the sprint hurdles by storm, clocking the third-fastest time in history. It remains to be seen, however, how she copes with her first major championships.

Warren Weir (Jamaica, 200m)

A bronze medallist in the 200m at the London Olympics, he has been nipping at Usain Bolt’s heels time-wise this season and should give him a run for his money.

Mutaz Essa Barshim (Qatar, high jump)

Made a name for himself by tying with Robbie Grabarz with a best clearance of 2.29 metres for bronze at the Olympics. He has since set his sights on Javier Stomayor’s 20-year-old world record of 2.45m.

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