OSAKA, Japan — While her competitors struggled, one dropping out with a leg injury, another puffy-eyed and crying after a dispute with the judges, Yelena Isinbayeva remained in her bubble.

She stretched out on the infield of Nagai Stadium with a big white towel over her head, hiding from the television cameras that seem magnetized to her. There in the dark, she dreamed of breaking the world record in the pole vault Tuesday at the track and field world championships.

But for Isinbayeva, the greatest female pole-vaulter in history, that world record would have to wait, perhaps until next year’s Olympics, where she is bound to be one of Beijing’s biggest stars.

She tried to clear 5.02 meters, or 16 feet 5½ inches, to break her own record, but failed, doing a back flip in the pole-vault pit as a consolation for the fans.

In the end, Isinbayeva had to settle for the gold medal, vaulting 4.80 meters with plenty room to spare.

“Nobody can beat me, nobody, so sorry for this,” Isinbayeva said, with a sweet giggle. “The other girls, they need to jump higher to even come close, but I don’t think it will. Right now, it is impossible. No chance.”

In the 400-meter hurdles, Felix Sanchez, the Olympic champion and two-time world champion for the Dominican Republic, finished second to Kerron Clement, a 21-year-old American, then dumped a bottle of water on Clement’s head to celebrate.

“He’s an amazing athlete,” Sanchez said, before commenting that Clement’s awkward hurdling style did not matter when he was so fast.

Clement stutter-stepped through the final two hurdles, but he still won in 47.61 seconds, 0.40 ahead of Sanchez. Past the finish line, he fell to his knees and dropped his head to the track. Afterward, he said again and again to reporters from a host of countries who interviewed him, “I am a world champion,” as if he had to remind himself that it was true.

But for every athlete with a gold medal, and with a psychological edge going into Beijing, there are hoards of others who will leave Osaka disappointed. For them, the Olympics will mean redemption.

James Carter, the U.S. champion in the 400 hurdles, who was fourth at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, was fourth, again.

In the pole vault, Jenn Stuczynski of the United States left with tears, not anger. Stuczynski, who had taken up pole vaulting only three years ago, had come into the competition hoping to put some pressure on Isinbayeva. But an injury to Stuczynski’s left Achilles’ tendon caused her to bow out of the competition. It was an anticlimactic end to her first world championships, in the year she became the first American woman to clear 16 feet. Only Isinbayeva has jumped higher.

Stuczynski finished 10th, and another competitor, Tatyana Polnova of Russia, left the track sobbing after failing to convince judges that her attempt at 4.65 meters was legitimate.

While they were left with their sorrow, Isinbayeva celebrated her second world title by running around the track draped in a Russian flag, photographers in orange vests swarming her.

Isinbayeva was not able to add the world record to the 20 pole-vault records she had already set, both indoor and out.

She simply soaked up the attention, just the way Clement did, knowing full well that this title will make them the favorite – and perhaps a star – in Beijing.

Here in Osaka, Isinbayeva has already become famous. She said teenage girls had come up to her in the street and said she inspired them to begin pole-vaulting. She said people crowded her for autographs, as if she were a movie star.

To play to reporters, Isinbayeva said she had learned a little Japanese. Only on the field will she hide beneath that white towel, to escape the publicity.

“I’m always under high attention,” she said. “People want you to be a certain way, and I try to be that way for them. It is, how do you say, that is my style.

“I just wish I could have broken the world record tonight to give the people something special.”

by: Juliet Macur


Yelena Isinbayeva
Yelena Isinbayeva

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