Then comes a small "poof" when Vlasic lands in the thick pad, the bar undisturbed. Seven times she did this Saturday night, the obediently motionless bar a little higher each time. The noise inhaled by the gasp of 91,000 fans. The high-jump contest was advertised as the showcase of a legend in this sport, Blanka Vlasic's 14-month winning streak at 38. A true pride of Croatia.
Croatia's Blanka Vlasic won a women's high jump silver medal at the Olympic Games in Beijing 2008
Dave Stubbs at the Beijing Games, Canwest News Service
Published: Saturday, August 23, 2008
BEIJING -- At field level, you hear the rapid foot patter of Blanka Vlasic approaching the bar, then maybe a tight sigh as she launches herself two metres up. In the air, she seems to be in slow motion, curling over the bar, back arching, ponytail snapping, legs flicking clear. Blanka Vlasic of Croatia competes in the Women's High Jump Final held at the National Stadium on Day 15 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 23, 2008 in Beijing, China.
Blanka Vlasic of Croatia competes in the Women's High Jump Final held at the National Stadium on Day 15 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 23, 2008 in Beijing, China.
Photograph by : Getty Images
Then comes a small "poof" when Vlasic lands in the thick pad, the bar undisturbed.
Seven times she did this Saturday night, the obediently motionless bar a little higher each time.
And then came the strangest sound on her eighth jump: it was a bonk, almost, as it rattled to the infield surface, the noise inhaled by the gasp of 91,000 fans gathered for the final night of Olympic competition.
The high-jump contest was advertised as the showcase of a legend in this sport, Blanka Vlasic's 14-month winning streak at 38.
Thirty-nine would give the 24-year-old from Split, Croatia, the precious Olympic title that had eluded her four years ago in Athens, where she placed 11th, and at Sydney in 2000, where she first dipped her toe at age 16.
But this morning, Belgium's Tia Hellebaut is wearing the gold medal, having engineered the biggest field upset at National Stadium to erase the longest win streak in athletics.
The bespectacled 30-year-old from Antwerp, the reigning indoor and outdoor European champion, cleared 2.05 metres on her first attempt after Vlasic had needed two tries. Vlasic took the bar up to 2.07, two centimetres below the world record. But she missed three times to hand the gold to Hellebaut.
It wasn't an easy contest for the champion, who cleared her first four bars before needing second attempts at 1.99, 2.01 and 2.03.
But Hellebaut had been inspired on Friday, Belgium's 4x100-metre women's relay team having won the silver medal. She says she had a vision, watching her flag unfurled the night before her competition.
"I couldn't sleep all night," Hellebaut said. "I felt so proud and happy."
At no time did she believe she had a jump of 2.05 metres in her body.
"My coach (and partner, Wim Vandeven) told me, 'You can jump the national record,'" she said. "And you know, he's always right."
It was the first Olympic track and field medal won by a Belgian woman.
Perhaps the result shouldn't have been totally unexpected. Vlasic struggled through a Friday qualifier that was held in nearly monsoon rains, making the 15-woman final only midpack.
In a Beijing sauna Saturday, she cleared her first seven bars, up to 2.03, then tumbled 2.05, the height which earned her the world championship last summer in Osaka.
"I don't know why I missed it," Vlasic would say. "It's very hard to explain. I finished it, then I need to swallow all over again. And I couldn't let myself get (into) motion smoothly.
"I don't feel like much was wrong. I did a good job and I need to be grateful. I'm not unhappy. It's a little bitter, but what can you do? It's the sport. I had no luck today."
At birth, good fortune played a role in Vlasic's life. The slim, six-foot-four athlete has genes to die for, the daughter of Josko Vlasic, a former decathlete whose best performance remains Croatia's national record, and Venera, once an elite alpine skier and basketball player.
(She is named Blanka for Casablanca, where her father was competing at the time of her birth.)
Vlasic dabbled with sprinting as a girl, but found her way to high-jumping because of a body that suited it well. It didn't take long for her to find success both on the field and in front of a camera.
She is a poster-girl for her sport and a popular Internet search, alluringly marketed by sponsors. She'll "strike a pose" after a winning jump, twitching her hips for her admirers. And she has many, based on the crowd she had eating out of her hand here.
Hellebaut merely went about her work, as invisibly as one can in a packed stadium. The contest was shaved to just two competitors, decided when one woman set a national record and another was unable to clear that same height, one she usually handles with ease.
The women will renew their rivalry on the European circuit, probably within days.
The next time Vlasic wins, her streak will be at one. And she will be one meet closer to her third Olympics, a competition that now must seem like an insurmountable bar.
For Tia Hellebaut, her streak is underway, having taken flight in Beijing and ending on the highest step of the victory stand.
Dave Stubbs is in Beijing as part of the Canwest News Service Olympic Team
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