Picture the scene. Through the huge glass windows of the Grand Hotel, the sun is glinting on the azure blue of the Mediterranean. The track-and-field stars who shone brightest at the Athens Olym-pics are gathering in Monte Carlo for the World Athletics Finals and the annual end-of-season gala awards ceremony hosted by the International Association of Athletics Federations. At a press conference in a meeting room of the hotel, the leading ladies of the sport are being asked who they would vote for as IAAF Female World Athlete of the Year.
Tonique Williams-Darling, invincible thus far in 2004 at 400 metres, nods towards the woman to her right. "I would say Kelly," the Bahamian sprinter says. "She has two Olympic gold medals." Kelly Holmes returns the nod and the compliment. "I would say Tonique," the Briton says. "She's had a fantastic season."
"And what about you, Yelena?" the woman at the end of the table is asked. Yelena Isinbayeva looks genuinely nonplussed that the question should be put to her. "I don't think about this question," she says, deadpan, in perfect English. "It has to be me."
It was not the first time last year that the young pole vaulter from Volgograd managed to bring down the house. After soaring to a world record in the London Grand Prix meeting at Crystal Palace in July, she ended up waving to the crowd from the top of an open-topped double-decker London bus on what was intended to be a ceremonial send-off for Britain's Athens-bound Olympic team.
After breaking her eighth world record of the year, at the post-Olympic Ivo van Damme Memorial in Brussels, Isinbayeva stole the microphone from the tenor Helmut Lotti and stole the post-meeting show with a rousing rendition of the Russian national anthem. The capacity 47,125 crowd packed into the Stade Roi Baudouin, the former Heysel Stadium, accorded her a standing ovation.
In British sport, there may well be nothing like Dame Kelly Holmes, but in the global scheme of things there is no diva quite like Isinbayeva, the young Russian who did indeed beat the near-veteran Briton to the IAAF World Female Athlete of the Year award,
At 34, Holmes opened her post-Olympic season in Glasgow last week confessing that it may be her last. At 22, Isinbayeva opens her indoor season in Donetsk next Saturday (in advance of an appearance at the Norwich Union Grand Prix in Birmingham on 18 February), with years of international competition stretching ahead of her and the sky seemingly her limit.
Last year she opened her competitive programme by breaking the world indoor record twice in one night at the Zepter Pole Vault Stars meeting in Donetsk - 4.81m and 4.83m - and then proceeded to set six more global standards, indoors and out, culminating in a clearance of 4.92m in Brussels. With her expanding record collection, and her gold medals from the Olympics in Athens and the World Indoor Championships, the former gymnast has propelled herself ahead of her compatriot Svetlana Feofanova and the American Stacy Dragila in the race to beat the 5m barrier - women's pole vaulting's equivalent of the men's four-minute mile.
It took the men 120 years of competition to surpass that elevated landmark height - from 1843, when pole vaulting for height, rather than distance, was pioneered in Stan Laurel's home town by members of Ulverston Football and Cricket Club, to 27 April 1963, when Brian Sternberg cleared 5m at the Penn Relays meeting at Franklin Field in Philadelphia. Sternberg set two further world records in the two months that followed, 5.05m and 5.08m, but then, in July 1963, broke his neck while training on a trampoline. He has been paralysed ever since. Now 61, he lives with his mother in Seattle.
It has taken the women vaulters of the world just nine years of official competition to reach 4.92m, although Isinbayeva cleared 4.97m in training only last week and also claims to have beaten 5m in practice last year. "It was just regular training," she says. "I jumped first 4.90m, then 4.95m, then 5.00m. I put the bar to 5.05 but I didn't do that. The bar fell off."
"It was in Volgograd on 7 June last year," her coach, Evgeniy Trofimov, says. And, judging from the huge margin by which his charge cleared her 4.92m world record in Brussels, there is little reason to doubt him. In Trofimov's estimation, Isinbayeva is capable of vaulting 5.10m.
When it comes to the competitive arena, however, like the great Ukrainian Sergei Bubka, who set 35 pole vault world records and who broke the men's 6m barrier, Isinbayeva is content to push up her limit centimetre by centimetre. It is a cool, calculating ploy which earned her £100,000 on British soil alone last summer as bonus payments for world records set at Gateshead, Birmingham and Crystal Palace.
"The money is not important for me," she insists. "I like to jump for the crowd first and for the money second. I like to fly. I like to pole vault. I also like to make the crowd happy. The crowd want to see world records and this way it is exciting for them."
With her shrewdly gained riches, the steelworker's daughter has bought herself an X3 series BMW. "I like to drive at 220km per hour," she says. "I like the speed."
According to Bubka, speed happens to be the key to Isinbayeva reaching her absolute limit at the end of the pole vault runway. "He has told me that I must concentrate on my speed," she says. "That is what I have been working on."
The results of the high-speed labour will become clear when the upwardly mobile Russian revs up on the runway in Donetsk on Saturday night.
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