Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva is gently favoured Monday to win the Olympic women’s pole vault for a third straight time. And she won’t argue the point, never short of confidence when in her sport’s hottest spotlight.

“I feel really confident for the final,” Isinbayeva said Saturday, having easily cleared 4.55 metres in qualification to earn a spot in the final round. “Today, I jumped well, but weather was difficult.”

Indeed it was, given the wind that swirled in Olympic Stadium. At one point, a British jumper who was aborting an attempt was grabbed by a gust and carried away from the landing pad, deposited rudely and with considerable force back on the runway.

REUTERS/Mark Blinch

“I feel really confident for the final,” Isinbayeva said Saturday, having easily cleared 4.55 metres in qualification to earn a spot in the final round. “Today, I jumped well, but weather was difficult.”

Isinbayeva will headline a 12-woman field when the lengthy session begins Monday evening. It’s expected to be the typical game of high-altitude chess, athletes toying with bar height to both challenge themselves and psyche out the opposition.

Watching with great interest in the sport’s best classroom will be Canada’s Mélanie Blouin, who failed to make the final in her first trip to the Olympics. The 22-year-old from Quebec cleared bars of 4.10 and 4.25 metres, a favourable wind at her back. But as the stiff breeze changed, so did the fortunes of the Université Laval student. She missed three attempts of 4.40, ending her Games.

Even a lifetime best of 4.40 wouldn’t have brought her into the final; two jumpers who cleared 4.50 were also eliminated.

“I had some luck with my first two jumps because the wind was with me,” Blouin said. “But it’s hard to control the pole when the wind’s in your face. When you have a headwind, you slow down and maybe it’s dangerous a little bit.”

Blouin entered 12 competitions this season in all kinds of weather, but the Olympics are a different beast altogether.

“It was amazing, just crazy, but I liked it a lot,” she said. “I want to come back in four years. I learned here I need to be by myself and not pay attention to other girls. They want to distract you to beat you.”

Blouin was awed, at first, to see Isinbayeva in the stadium, preparing for work. But by the time the Quebecer had taken her five jumps and was back in the stadium’s mixed zone, talking to reporters, the legendary Russian hadn’t even begun to compete.

Isinbayeva entered the contest at 4.50, cleared that, then went over 4.55 to call it a day.

She seems most likely to be challenged by American Jennifer Suhr, who took just one qualifying jump of 4.55 to advance. Surh was second to Isinbayeva in Beijing four summers ago, her 4.92 vault second all-time in the world to the Russian’s 2008 world record of 5.06.

It was Olympic rookie Suhr – maiden name Stuczynski in 2008 – who was infamous for having said before the Games: “I hope we do some damage and, you know, kick some Russian butt.”

Pretty harmless, but Isinbayeva took it personally.

“I am not deaf. I can read interviews and hear what is being talked about,” she sniffed in her gold-medal news conference. “It made me really angry because I said, ‘How is it possible to speak like this about me?’ When I found out, it wasn’t nice, first of all, because she must respect me and know her position. Now she knows it.”

So there, Isinbayeva scolded, spanking Suhr for what was some very tame trash-talking.

The two women, and 10 others, now meet here with Isinbayeva hardly the invincible athlete she was four years ago. The Russian holds the 11 top vaults of all time, 17 of the top 20; Surh has the other three. Only Isinbayeva has ever cleared five metres. But the 30-year-old didn’t record a height at the 2009 world championship or the 2010 world indoors. Isinbayeva walked away from the sport, disillusioned, returning to finish sixth at last summer’s worlds.

She showed flashes of her old form indoors this season, even establishing a world record of 5.01. But her only two outdoor meets were underwhelming enough — 4.75 and three misses at 4.70 — to leave the Olympic field believing that, finally, she can be taken.

In Beijing, Isinbayeva was a riot to observe, stalling until the final track event of the night was done so that she could have the rapt attention for herself of all 80,000 packed into the stadium.

By now alone in the vaulting contest, already assured of gold, she twice failed at 4.95 in her bid to improve the Olympic record by .04, before a successful final try.

Then, the bar went into the stratosphere at 5.05, one centimetre above her own world record. Twice she toppled it, then she camped out on the grass with a towel draped over her head, everyone staring at this solitary, motionless figure.

Finally, up and over she went. By half a metre, it seemed.



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