Ruth Beitia in the high jump at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)
Patience proved a virtue for Ruth Beitia, who became the oldest ever jumps champion in Olympic history as a flawless record up to and including 1.97m secured Spanish gold for the 37-year-old.
In a competition in which the top four all matched each other in terms of best height, Mirela Demireva of Bulgaria was a surprise silver medallist with Blanka Vlasic rewarded with bronze to clinch her second Olympic podium finish, eight years after claiming silver in Beijing 2008.
Yet in an international career which began 21 years ago, before two of the 17 finalists who lined up for the final were even born, Beitia finally gained the ultimate reward by becoming the first Spanish woman to win Olympic athletics gold and the first athlete from her country to ever win a field event gold.
World leader Chaunte Lowe of the USA was the unlucky athlete to successfully negotiate 1.97m but miss out on precious metal.
With the entire field successfully clearing 1.88m, the bar was raised to 1.93m. At this height Beitia was one of only three women along with Lowe – who appeared to be having the time of her life, busting dance moves every time the camera came within her vicinity – and Italy’s Alessia Trost clearing at the first time of asking.
Of the other main contenders, Vlasic – who was understandably a little rusty competing in her first competition since January following achilles tendon issues – needed second-time clearances at both 1.88m and 1.93m to advance.
Five women found 1.93m beyond them – among them world indoor champion Vashti Cunningham. The US teenager – who earlier this year had leaped a world indoor U20 record of 1.99m – looked distraught, but in a nice touch she was generously consoled by her teammate Lowe.
As it turned out, 1.97m proved the pivotal height. Beitia, who was jumping first in the rotation, comfortably cleared the height to maintain her 100% record.
Demireva, the European silver medallist, matched Beitia’s accomplishment at 1.97m and in the process equalled her PB. However, a costly first-time failure at 1.88m meant the 26-year-old stood second in the overall standings.
Vlasic needed a second attempt once more to stay alive while Lowe – who surely possesses one of the quickest approaches to the bar ever seen – left it until her third and last jump to stay in the medal hunt.
The remaining eight finalists all withered at this height, among these were Marie-Laurence Jungfleisch of Germany – a 2.00m jumper this year – and Poland’s Kamila Licwinko, the 2014 world indoor champion.
As the bar was raised to 2.00m, the four remaining contenders were Beitia, Demireva, Vlasic and Lowe in that order. All had their opportunities to seize control of the competition. Yet in an anti-climactic conclusion to the competition, the quartet registered a total of a dozen non clearances between them. Vlasic, in particular, came close with her final effort, and Lowe with her familiar fast-jumping motion also came close.
However, in the final shake up it was Beitia who secured gold. Demireva took a shock silver and became the first Bulgarian to win a medal in this event since world record-holder Stefka Kostadinova struck gold 20 years ago in Atlanta.
Bronze went to Vlasic, a more than commendable accomplishment bearing in mind the horrific injury problems she has experienced in recent times.
In a footnote to the event, the gold medal-winning height of 1.97m was the lowest to win an Olympic gold since Italy’s Sara Simeoni leapt exactly the same height at the 1980 Moscow Games. It was also one centimetre less than Nafissatou Thiam of Belgium and Great Britain’s Katarina Johnson-Thompson achieved competing in the heptathlon in the Olympic Stadium eight days earlier.
Steve Landells for the IAAF