When Yelena Isinbayeva came to Beijing, the question that was on everybody’s mind was not whether she could add another gold to her Athens 2004 triumph, but whether she could break her own world record for (believe it or not) the twenty-fourth time. And she did it in perfect style.
5.03m, a phenomenal 25cm more than her closest competitor, American Jennifer Stuczynski. The 26-year-old Russian pin-up girl has made pole vault her personal fiefdom. She has broken her own world record 23 times so far, and is sure to be eyeing up the legendary Sergei Bubka’s all-time record of 35 in the men’s event. Her father was a plumber; she is the queen of the new Russia.
Did I say queen? I would revise my statement, for Yelena Isinbayeva is a goddess. I just cannot express the beauty and finesse that this woman inspires in me as I watch the numerous repeat telecasts of her breathtaking Olympic performance. The image of her as she went up in the air and came down, and then yelled and clenched her fists looks straight from a dream Hollywood film. In fact, her performances come across as almost cinematic in their execution and beauty. Her physique seems to be carved like the Grecian goddesses of yore, tall, beautifully muscled, sleek, extremely athletic and panther-like. Indeed she resembles a diva, in dark mascara, nail varnish and long flashy earrings, conjuring an inexplicable romanticism in my mind, something that the feminists of the Seventies would have loved to behold.
Now, here I can say that sports in itself is a romantic pre-occupation and we who love sports definitely share this romanticism, both myself and you who is reading this article: the idea that sport is worth even a few moments of our time is in itself a romantic perception. No one with a totally practical grasp of reality, with a properly cynical view of life, bothers with sport; they can’t see the point. So as romantics, I especially seem to find a beauty unparalleled in Isinbayeva’s triumph, her repeated wins as she aims to go higher and higher. It is so masculine in a certain way, yet so endearingly feminine. I guess it is something to do with women- as Virginia Woolf would have approved- who seem to transcend gender barriers in ways that seem at once obvious and metaphorical.
Yelena Isinbayeva has come to represent for me such a romantic idea of women- strong, aspirational and conquering. Her performance is romantic to say the least, as she seems to take wings, soar high almost touching heaven and come down into her own- an image of perfect womanhood. Women’s pole vault is thus an image of everything that feminism has tried to achieve. As she herself said, “Pole vaulting is like limitless happiness.” Even she romanticizes her event. Her technique is perfect. She was a gymnast at the early stages and as such her mobility, flexibility and bodily control are stuff that even men pole-vaulters can learn from.
She is unbeatable and this is something that she knows well enough. Her only competition is with herself and she keeps that up with élan. So what next, may I ask? She has won the world indoor and outdoor championships, she is a double Olympic champion and holds a seemingly impossible world record. Here again she wants to go ahead, just as Betty Friedan and Elaine Showalter would have wanted her to, in search of new heights. Women have come a long way since Woolf or Friedan, but there are still some challenges that remain and Isinbayeva has almost become a symbol of the soaring and flying women. She is a champion and in a way that few have ever done so in any sports. Maybe the only recent comparison that comes to my mind is that of Roger Federer’s golden rule, and even that was nowhere close to her sheer dominance and power of the event. Maybe, it is time she tries her hand at the men’s event. Bubka’s record can’t be far behind.