SEVILLE, Spain— Stacy Dragila stood at the end of the runway, clapping in the direction of the small block of fans still sitting in her end of the Estadio Olimpico and cupping her hand to her ear in a request for more volume. The crowd had not come out in force Saturday for the first night of this world athletic championship — only about one-third of the new 60,000-seat stadium was filled — which will not delight or reassure PrimoNebiolo, the president of the International Amateur Athletic Federation.

Nebiolo, the energetic Italian still clinging tightly to his bully pulpit at age 76, and his organization took a chance in deciding to stage their showcase event in Seville in the torpor of late August there were thousand of empty seats again Sunday. If attendance does not improve dramatically in the week to come, it will be difficult to deem it a success, no matter how big the television ratings. Athletics thrives on atmosphere; on a crowd that knows its split times and its distances, its stars and their limitations. But after watching Dragila win a gold medal and equal a world record not long before midnight Saturday, the IAAF made one wise decision concerning Seville.

There was a time, not long ago, when women were not considered strong enough to make a good show of the pole vault. With men like Sergei Bubka surpassing six meters (almost 20 feet), what interest could there be in the lower altitudes where women vaulters would inevitably operate? But this has been a decade for female athletes to debunk the old saws. They box. They blast slap shots in the Olympics.

They fill the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, for a soccer game. They pole-vault, too, and Saturday marked their debut in the world championships. By the time that debut ended after more than four hours of spectacular misses, blown kisses, remarkable effort and a record-tying 4.6-meter leap by Dragila, it was difficult to imagine the world championship without these women. “Women’s sports have come so far; girls are not afraid or timid to try things,” Dragila said Sunday, preparing to head out into the warm Andalusian evening without her pole to celebrate with her husband, Brent, the victory she had been too drained to celebrate Saturday.

“To do the pole vault — it’s not an easy thing to master: the technique, the strength,” she said. For Dragila, a 26-year-old Californian who lives in Idaho, the challenge began unexpectedly during her time at Idaho State University. She was a heptathlete, and one day during practice her coach asked her and her teammates to try to pole-vault six feet (two meters). Dragila tried and quickly decided she could go higher, although not without trepidation. “The first couple trillion times trying to go over the bar were pretty frightening for me,” she once said. This is the haphazard way that a new sporting discipline gathers momentum.

Young women who were born in the 1940s or 1950s could watch figure skaters or tennis players on television and say, “I want to do that.” Would-be women’s pole vaulters have had to rely on coincidence. Emma George, the Australian whose record Dragila matched in Seville, decided to try pole vaulting in 1994 when she saw a request pinned to a notice board in a Melbourne suburb. She made rapid progress, partly because of her background as a circus performer with a children’s troupe called “Flying Fruit Flies.”

Her circus instructors included Chinese acrobats. Her favorite routine was called the “Tower of Chairs,” and it required a table to be balanced on top of four wine bottles and then chairs to be balanced on top of the table and then Australian girls to be balanced on top the chairs. “When you go up in the air with your head pointing down, it’s best to be able to figure out in a hurry where you are,” George once said. “Very young, I got used to that sort of situation on the trapeze, so the pole vault is something natural to me.” But for all her ease in the air, George has been making the pole vault look difficult lately. She injured her back in a training accident, and on Saturday, she went out early after missing spectacularly at 14 feet 3 1/4 inches, failing to generate enough momentum to get her body over the bar and nearly landing on the track instead of the padded mat.

The first world outdoor medals will always belong to Dragila, Anzhela Balakhonova, a former rhythmic gymnast from Ukraine who won the silver, and Tatiana Grigoryeva, a Russian-born Australian who won the bronze. “I think we have surprised tons of people with how far our sport has come in such a short time,” Dragila said. They are still more than 1.5 meters short of Bubka, but Dragila believes the gap will close and that a woman will clear 5 meters in the near future.

As an American, she does not live by the metric system, and after becoming the first woman to clear 15 feet in a sanctioned event, she said 16 feet is possible. What is not possible — at least not yet — is a place for women’s pole vaulting on the Grand Prix circuit or equal prize money here.

The winner of the men’s event Thursday will earn $60,000; Dragila got half that because her event was new to the world-championship. “Not that I’m trying to be greedy but I think we deserve it,” she said. “At the Olympics next year, will they give us half a medal?”

by: Christopher Clarey


Stacy Dragila
Stacy Dragila

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