Former world U18 champion Ekaterini Stefanidi of Greece finally delivered on all the rich promise she showed during a prodigious age-group career to land the gold medal on countback in an absorbing competition inside a buzzing Olympic Stadium.
The 26-year-old, who this season has been the most consistent vaulter in the world and who last month landed the European title, unashamedly shed tears of joy to secure top spot on the podium on countback from USA’s Sandi Morris.
The pair both cleared 4.85m and matched each other vault-for-vault apart from the US vaulter needing two attempts at 4.70m to Stefanidi’s one, a failure that ultimately proved costly.
In a slight surprise, 19-year-old Eliza McCartney took a bronze medal as she equalled her New Zealand record with a first-time clearance of 4.80m to become the youngest person in Olympic history to mount the podium in the women’s pole vault.
It was also the first outdoor competition in the history of the event in which four women have cleared 4.80m or higher.
McCartney, the former world U20 record-holder, may represent the future of the event, but today it was Stefanidi’s day and the US-based Greek was elated with her success after a long career in the sport.
“I’ve jumped since I was 10 years old, a total of 16 years,” she said. “I can’t believe what’s happened. It’s amazing, the crowd were amazing, my parents are here. They are both athletes so they understand even more.
“It’s one of the hardest events to compete in. I started so young. I’m glad to make my country proud.”
The majority of competitors entered the competition at 4.50m, although the USA's defending champion Jenn Suhr, who had been struck by an untimely virus in the days leading up to the event, and Stefanidi chose to delay their entrance into the competition until 4.60m.
Suhr, who also won Olympic silver in 2008, looked understandably laboured given her health issues and needed two attempts to clear 4.60m; a height which saw the departure of two women: Tina Sutej of Slovenia and Canada’s Kelsie Ahbe.
The 34-year-old Suhr, who was visibly struggling, found 4.70m beyond her and, unfortunately, made a premature exit in defence of her title.
Also eliminated at 4.70m were the German duo Martina Strutz and Liza Ryzih as well as, slightly surprisingly, Cuba’s world champion and 2012 Olympic silver medallist Yarisley Silva.
Six women cleared 4.70m with McCartney, Stefanidi, Great Britain’s Holly Bradshaw and Nicole Buchler of Switzerland doing so at the first time of asking.
Morris needed a second-time clearance to earn the judges’ approval – a statistic which would come back to haunt her – while Oceania record-holder Alana Boyd succeeded at the third time of asking.
The medallists really began to take shape at 4.80m, which the largely unheralded 2014 world U20 bronze medallist McCartney soared clear to match her national record with her first effort to grab control of the competition.
Stefanidi, Morris and Boyd all needed second-time clearances to negotiate this height while Bradshaw was eliminated and, after one failure, Buchler gambled and passed to the next height of 4.85m.
All five remaining vaulters registered a cross next to their name with their respective first attempts. However, the talented McCartney, who clearly appeared to be enjoying every moment of her maiden Olympic experience, came perilously close to a clearance and only dislodged the bar with her chest on the way back down to the pole vault bed.
Stefanidi and then Morris – who in May broke a bone in her wrist – both hit back to slither over 4.85m with their second attempts, the latter punching the air in triumph.
McCartney could not match the more experienced pair, but she was rewarded with a brilliant bronze following her flawless competition up to this point after Buchler’s gamble at 4.85m proved unsuccessful and Boyd fell short of what was required to clear 4.85m.
The bar was then raised to 4.90m but with Stefanidi having her nose in front courtesy of a first-time clearance at 4.70m, compared to Morris’ second-time clearance, the Greek now held the upper hand.
And after neither woman could nail the height with their combined six attempts, it was Stefanidi’s gold. Morris, though, was unfortunate not to clear with her third attempt after getting plenty of height above the bar and only dislodging it with her knee.
Steve Landells for the IAAF