VAULTING TO GREATNESS
‘I am my only rival,’ says Olympian Yelena Isinbayeva
TMONACO he Queen is not dead. She has tried the life of the normal woman and did not care for it, so now she is talking of winning gold and eating caviar and wearing mascara and buying expensive silk and whispering sweet talk to oligarchs.
There is an utter conviction about the woman, who is pleased to call herself crazy, ambitious, lusty, beautiful, saintly, even sinful, and always a woman: “I do not expect to win,” she says, as if the verb implies weakness. “I will win.”
This is Yelena Isinbayeva, restored to all her glory at age 29. You may not have heard of her, but she might well become the greatest athlete to emerge from the London Olympics this summer. Certainly she will be the most talked-about.
She already holds two gold medals and has set 27 world records. She was instrumental in helping Russia win the right to host the 2018 soccer World Cup. She buys apartments for the needy. She receives presents from the prime minister of Russia and was given a million-dollar gift from billionaire sports and business mogul Roman Abramovich. Oh, yes, she oozes star quality. Yet two years ago, the pole vaulter hit rock bottom. Bored with success, she let her training lapse and began to lose. She decided to quit, first for good, then for two years. In the end, she was gone for a year.
Now she is back, with no fears of being reclaimed by the ordinary. Is she more well-rounded, more grounded, more realistic in her ambitions after her sabbatical?
“Not really,” she says with a degree of incredulity. “To realize you are not superwoman? It’s nicer to know you are unbeatable.” She pauses in a room overlooking the sea in her adopted Monaco.
“I was drained with winning. I am still unbeatable because nobody can jump five metres. I am not competing against anyone else. I never have. I compete only against me. I am my only rival.”
Isinbayeva lives in Monaco, but is fêted in Moscow. Russia is entering a golden decade of sport, with next year’s World Athletics Championships followed by the Winter Olympics in 2014 and then the World Cup four years after that.
Those events have created a welter of negative stories, with allegations of corruption, kickbacks
‘In Beijing, everyone else had finished and so it was just me and my record attempts. The 80,000 people were screaming for me. I cannot compare that moment with something else. It was magic. Then I went home and I felt like Yuri Gagarin coming back from space.’ YELENA ISINBAYEVA on her gold-medal win at the 2008 Olympics, shown at right.
and racism painting a Westernized picture of chaos. Isinbayeva is having none of it.
“If people have negative feelings, it means they are afraid of us,” she says. “If we host something, a world championships or World Cup, we will do the best event ever. We don’t care that we will have a crisis after, we don’t care that we will become bankrupt if we spend on an event, we just want everyone to have pleasure and go home saying Russia is the best country.”
It is the same, she says, as entertaining at home.
“When I invite someone to my place, even if I have money problems, I will buy caviar and I will have the best food. That’s what we Russians are like.”
“I support Putin and I say the truth. He has changed Russia for the better. ... I don’t know about education and medicine, but I know about sport and he has done a lot. If you are an Olympic champion you have a very high position in Russia. He gives us a very good salary, cars, nice apartments in Moscow.”
The protests in Russia against Vladimir Putin, the prime minister accused of rigging today’s presidential elections, suggest that this is not the common view.
“I support Putin and I say the truth,” Isinbayeva says. “He has changed Russia for the better and I am afraid if someone else comes in. It’s upsetting to see the protests because people very quickly forget the good he has done. I don’t know about education and medicine, but I know about sport and he has done a lot. If you are an Olympic champion you have a very high position in Russia. He gives us a very good salary, cars, nice apartments in Moscow.”
When Isinbayeva was seeking money to redevelop her local sports arena in Volgograd, Abramovich offered to help. She met the Chelsea soccer club owner while campaigning for Russia’s 2018 soccer bid.
“He said: ‘I will help you.’ I told him how much we needed. Twenty million rubles. He said: ‘Here is my contact.’ I was so happy because everyone says that, once Abramovich promises something, he does it. I said: ‘Do you really mean it?’ He patted my arm and said: ‘Lena, I never forget.’”
That was 2010, during her year off. After being unbeaten for six consecutive years, Isinbayeva had started to lose, at the world championships, indoor and out. She recalls vividly lying on a crash mat in Berlin, knowing that her streak was over.
“In the past, I had always been able to pull out one jump, even if it was difficult or impossible, but I fell down and thought: ‘What now? How can I go back to Russia?’ It took me days to realize I lost because of me, because of my private problems.”
The emptiness of excellence is a curious phenomenon, so Isinbayeva tried a life less extraordinary.
“It was time to look around and compare my sporting life and reality,” she says. “For three months I did nothing. I relaxed, had no pain, no injuries. Every time I woke up I thought: ‘It’s a beautiful day, today I will make myself happy.’
“I would have a picnic in the forest or get a pedicure, go shopping. One month passed, two months, three and then I didn’t want to go shopping any more. A normal woman’s life was boring. Every day I had to search for some pleasure when what I needed was sport.”
She still craves the adulation and is wary of what will happen afterward. “It’s like a singer and a show,” Isinbayeva says. “I feel I’m the only one out there.”
It often that way.
“In Beijing, everyone else had finished, and so it was just me and my record attempts,” she says. “The 80,000 people were screaming for me. I cannot compare that moment with something else. It was magic. Then I went home and I felt like Yuri Gagarin coming back from space.”
It was another two years before she came back to Earth. The crash-landing came in the World Indoor Championships at Doha, Qatar, in 2010.
From being inviolable, with two Olympic titles, two world titles and seven unprecedented vaults of five metres, she had suddenly finished outside the medals in two important championships.
“I knew that if I carried on the way I was, London was impossible,” she says. “I went away, lived bad, put on four kilos.”
London, in a way, saved her. She says that she has a
‘I want athletics to be a glamorous sport. When normal people, like businessmen or sponsors, look at the TV, they care about how the athlete looks. If the girl who has the best results is ugly, they will never be interested. If she has the best results and the best looks, it’s complete. … I have to be an athlete and a woman. I cannot split the two.”
deep affection for Britain because it was there she set her first world record in 2003, and the lure of another Olympics drew her back from the days contemplating forests and feet and buying silk.
She was only sixth at last year’s world championships on her comeback and it is three years since she last raised the world record, to 5.06 metres. But she says she can — she will — get back there, explaining that she has twice jumped 5.01 metres in winter training despite being only “70-per-cent fit.” The World Indoor Championships later this month are her first goal, but the London Olympics will be “special ... a final goal, I think.”
h“i want athletics to be a glamorous sport,” she says. “When normal people, like businessmen or sponsors, look at the TV, they care about how the athlete looks. If the girl who has the best results is ugly, they will never be interested. If she has the best results and the best looks, it’s complete.
“Look at tennis. The women are beautiful, wear makeup and have nice dresses. I want all girls in athletics to look their best. I have to be an athlete and a woman. I cannot split the two.” That may have the feminist lobby cringing, but there is something delightfully eccentric about Isinbayeva. It may well be her event, a dangerous mixture of grace and athleticism. Her left-field approach extends to her designer red poles. Her manufacturer has acceded to her request not to let anyone else use the same colour. That segues into her talk of getting married. Some days she wants a huge wedding with 400 or 500 people (she has no steady boyfriend at the moment), on others she wants a small family affair: “I am Gemini and so it’s, ‘Yes, no, yes, no, yes, no.’”
And, yes, she talks to her pole. “He is like a friend. I talk to him. I love him. Everyone talks to something: a tree, themselves, a pole. Everyone says pole vaulters are a bit crazy. We can get hurt. Normal people would be afraid. It is a glamorous, crazy event and we are all crazy.”
A megastar at home with the ear of the elite, she is trenchantly honest and shuns PR platitudes. Britain’s Holly Bleasdale is the coming star of the sport, having risen to fourth in the all-time rankings at the tender age of 20, but Isinbayeva is happy both to admire and dismiss her.
“To jump that height at that age is good,” she says. “At that age, I did not jump that height, so, if she improves on her start, Britain will have a pole-vault star.” Cue caveat. “Of course, she is maybe too young because she does not have the experience to withstand the pressure. I remember my first Olympic Games and it was terrible. I was young. Everyone else was very talented. I was nobody. I saw myself like an insect on the floor. I did not feel comfortable. I was a miserable pole vaulter. She is strong, but she is not my rival right now. She is the rival of the next generation.”
For now, Isinbayeva is determined to hold off all rivals and the chances are strong the Olympic queen will still be wearing her crown come August. Then she thinks she will abdicate.
“I will retire next year after the world championships in Moscow,” she says. “But in London I want to show I am still alive.”