Feature08 Sep 2020

Balas, simply the best


Romanian high jumper Iolanda Balas

Sixty years ago today in Rome, Romania’s Iolanda Balas won the first of her two career Olympic high jump titles.

In addition to Balas’s Olympic golds, her career was headlined by 14 world records and an unmatched win streak of 150 competitions which kept her unbeaten for almost 11 years.

The lyrics of ‘The Best’ which Bonnie Tyler wrote and sung, and Tina Turner famously covered, sum up Balas’s athletics brilliance. Balas is “simply the best, better than all the rest!” in the history of women’s athletics.

Iolanda’s Empire

The 1960 Rome Olympic Games provide a perfect illustration of Balas’s dominance. The rest of the high jump field exited the final at 1.73m, a height which Balas cleared on her first attempt. She then went on to establish Olympic records at 1.77m, 1.81m (second attempt) and 1.85 (third) before finally failing three times at a would-be world record of 1.87m. It remains the greatest winning margin in a senior global high jump competition. Her triumph was an exhibition more than it was ever a battle for gold.

Iolanda Balas in action at the 1960 Olympic Games


Balas was ahead of her time. As of 16 July 1961, she had jumped 41 competitions over 1.80m while the second-best athlete on the all-time list stood at 1.78m. By the close of her career in 1967, ended due to an achilles injury, out of 99 competitions which had taken place over 1.80, Balas possessed 94 of them! [1]

To quote athletics’ greatest historian, the late Roberto Quercetani: “if there has ever been an athlete who towered head and shoulders above her contemporaries for a seemingly endless time, this was certainly Iolanda Balas.” Balas was so dominant that Quercetani, in his definitive history ‘Athletics – A Modern History of Track and Field Athletics’, sub-titled that era of women’s high jumping as ‘Iolanda’s Empire’.

“Sometimes it was hard to compete; there was no opposition for me,” commented Balas after retirement. After her athletics career she taught PE and had a distinguished career as a sports administrator. She served as President of the Romanian Athletics Federation (1991-2005) and was a Vice-President of the Romanian Olympic Committee (1998-2002).

Balas died in Bucharest, aged 79, on 11 March 2016.

Romania's Iolanda Balas in action


Electric talent

Balas was born on 12 December 1936 in Timișoara, Romania, into a Romanian-Hungarian family. Balas’s mother was Etel Bozso, a housewife. Her father Frigyes, a locksmith by trade, was of Hungarian decent. He fought in the Hungarian army during WWII and remained in Budapest after the end of the conflict.

Given her divided family background, it is significant that Balas in 2005 reflected: “I have relatives still living in Hungary. I did not get that chance (to live there) …. I hope, however, that in addition to Romanians, Hungarians are also proud of me.” [2]

Balas attended the Roman Catholic High School for Girls in Timișoara, where the nuns encouraged sports. By great fortune, Balas happened to live in the same apartment building as Luiza Ernst-Lupşa, who was the best long jumper in the region and in 1948 became national pentathlon champion. It was ‘Aunt Luiza’, as Balas affectionately called her, who first spotted the talent of the then nine-and-a-half-year-old Balas.

Thanks to Ernst-Lupşa, three years later Balas was already a promising member of the ‘Electrica’ club in the city. It was there that she first met her coach Ion Söter, a fellow Timisorian, whom she would later marry (1967).

Romania's Iolanda Balas in action


In 1951, as a member of ‘Electrica’, she won the first of her 19 senior national titles.

“Balas (1.85m) was well above the average height of the time. She could not adapt to either the western roll or the straddle, so she used a modified version of the scissors.” [3]

She moved to Bucharest in 1953 to join the club CSA Steaua to train nearer to Söter, who had moved to the capital. Söter was himself a good high jumper. He was eight times national champion, and the first Romanian to jump two metres. His best came in 1956 when he cleared 2.05m in Istanbul at the Balkan Games.

Under Söter’s guidance, Balas took her first international honours, silver (1.65m) at the 1954 European Championships in Bern. Two years later, aged 19, in Bucharest on 14 July 1956, she set her first world record (1.75m).

No coach

Balas left for the Olympics Games in Melbourne with Romania hoping their new world record-holder would return with gold. One thing though was missing. The Communist government banned Söter for travelling to Australia, fearing that, with a brother already living there, he and perhaps Balas might defect. [4]

Without his technical guidance and psychological support, Balas could only place fifth on her Olympic debut in Melbourne on 1 December 1956 – a great performance for one so young. Yet when she returned home, it was to criticism from the establishment that she should have won. The wildest accusation being that she had deliberately lost.

Iolanda Balas in action at the 1960 Olympic Games


The rest is history. Following Balas’s defeat in Melbourne, she did not lose another competition until 11 June 1967.

1958 was an especially good year. In Bucharest, Balas improved the world record five times. That spree from June to October included success at 1.83m and so she became the first woman to clear the psychologically significant barrier of six feet. In that year Balas also won the first of her two career European titles; the other victory was in 1962.

Her last world mark on 16 July 1961, which stood for 10 years, saw her jump 1.91m. At the time of that clearance, the second-best jumper of all time had a PB 13 centimetres lower than Balas’s.

Simply the best.

Chris Turner for World Athletics Heritage

*1 - PJ Vazel
*2 - Aghassi Attila
*3 - Roberto Quercetani
*4 - Radio Romania International

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