Every Olympic gold medal is memorable. But there are some which have a special place in the history of the Games.
From Cathy Freeman powering to victory in front of her home crowd in Sydney in 2000 to Mo Farah striding away from his nearest challengers in London in 2012, there have been many glorious home victories.
On Monday night in Rio, Brazil had an unforgettable triumph of their own to treasure.
Thiago Braz da Silva snatched victory in the men’s pole vault in a thrilling finale, much to the delight of the home supporters. In doing so, the 22-year-old became the first Brazilian man to win an Olympic title in athletics since Joaquim Cruz won the 800m in Los Angeles 32 years ago.
“To take a medal for Brazil, it is amazing” said Braz. “I try to do my best for the people because they believe in me.”
Braz, who was world U20 champion in 2012, set an Olympic record with his second attempt at 6.03m, stunning pre-competition favourite Renaud Lavillenie of France in front of a vocal and partisan home crowd.
“I worked really hard for this and I tried to get at a minimum the bronze medal,” he said. “I definitely aimed to get one medal but I didn’t expect it to be gold. I just tried to do my best and focus on myself and not think about Lavellenie or anybody else. The crowd were cheering me too much. I had to fix my mind on my technique and forget about the people.
“I couldn’t believe I cleared 6.03m. I had to say to myself ‘okay, what just happened here?' A gold medal, a jump of 6.03m, and an Olympic record. It’s all so crazy.”
Upsetting the odds
Lavillenie looked to be in control of the competition with first-time clearances throughout his series and at 5.98m, while Braz suffered first-time failures at 5.75m and 5.93m. But once the Brazilian cleared 6.03m, the defending champion could not respond, relinquishing the title he won in London four years ago.
“I was not totally surprised because I knew that he would be able to jump over six metres,” said Lavellenie. “I didn’t know when and where but I knew he had the potential. He’s a good guy and a really talented pole vaulter. I’m a little bit upset with myself, but I’m very happy to be able to compete in one of the best competitions in the history of pole vault.”
Braz grew up in Marilia, Brazil, and lived with his grandmother and grandfather on his father’s side, rather than his parents. His family did not have much of a background in athletics, but he was encouraged by his uncle to get involved in the sport.
“I started athletics because of my uncle,” he said. “He did decathlon while nobody else in my family trained. He tried to push me into the sport and he helped give me a good future.”
There was a period of time when Braz gave up athletics and flirted with other sports before finding his way back. “I practised basketball for six months and then I returned to athletics and to pole vault," he said. "After that, my career improved and I have continued to become better.”
Relocating to Italy
His path to Olympic glory was not a straightforward one. Faced with a dilemma on whether to stay at home or move abroad, Braz elected to relocate to Formia, Italy, 18 months ago to work with veteran coach Vitaly Petrov, who also led Yelena Isinbayeva and Sergey Bubka to Olympic gold medals, the latter the man he considers his hero in the sport.
“This was my decision to change my life and to try to improve as an athlete,” he said. “I wanted to train with Vitaly. Today it showed very well that this was a good decision.”
A fearless competitor on the runway, the 22-year-old cuts a more modest and down-to-earth figure off the track, preferring a simple life with those closest to him rather than engaging in more extravagant hobbies.
“I just like to relax because my days are usually so busy with training. I like to relax with my family, go to the cinema with my wife, and have coffee with my coach. Sometimes I go back to visit my mother and father and I go fishing with them and I just love that.”
Having moved to equal seventh on the world all-time list, the Brazilian is in no doubt that he is very much on the upward curve, and can go much higher in the coming years, perhaps even challenging Lavillenie’s world record of 6.16m.
“Maybe one day I can get close to the world record,” he said. “Vitaly believes I can do it, but I need to improve my training and my technique. In the future we will see what happens.”
That’s all for down the line, however. For now, having achieved the ultimate prize in his sport, he has more pressing matters to attend to.
“My family are going out to celebrate my gold medal and I will try to stay with them and for sure we will have a party," he said. "I think it will be a good night.”
There will be many more in Brazil who will do likewise.
James Sullivan for the IAAF