Pole vault world record-holder Renaud Lavillenie at the press conference for the IAAF Continental Cup, Marakech 2014 (© Getty Images)
By any measure, Renaud Lavillenie has had an incredible season, losing just once in 23 contests, completing a hat-trick of European Championship golds, and adding a fifth consecutive Diamond Race victory to the iconic pole vault world record he broke during the indoor season, way back in February.
But there is one last achievement he wants to add to his 2014 portfolio of honours – victory at the IAAF Continental Cup in Marrakech on Sunday when he will end his outdoor campaign with one last tilt at the six-metre barrier.
Aside from the elusive World Championships gold (he’s won a silver and two bronze medals at that event), a Continental Cup victory is the one major gap in Lavillenie’s ever-expanding CV.
Four years ago in Split, he leapt 5.90m but had to settle for second place when Australia’s Steve Hooker went five centimetres higher to claim a cup record. This time, as captain of the European team, the 27-year-old is expected to earn maximum points for his side as they attempt to wrest the title from the grip of the Americas and so add his name to a list of pole vault winners that includes such greats as Mike Tully, Sergey Bubka and Maksim Tarasov.
“The Continental Cup and the World Championships are the two big competitions I haven’t won yet,” he said today when asked to reflect on what he still aims to achieve this year.
“I tried this event only once, in 2010, and had a good fight with Steve Hooker. I jumped 5.90m but he made 5.95m, so I really hope to win this time.
“I am expecting something good. I’m still in good shape so why not jump six metres here? I think in Marrakech we will have some of the best conditions for jumping we’ve had all season.”
Lavillenie improved his own world lead to 5.93m at his last competition – the IAAF Diamond League final in Brussels last Friday – and is an overwhelming favourite here to chalk up his 15th win of the outdoor season, his one defeat coming on a cold and windy night in Stockholm three weeks ago when he failed to clear a height.
With still, muggy conditions likely in Marrakech, there seems little prospect of that happening here. The Americas’ Mark Hollis is likely to be his closest challenger, but the US athlete has a season’s best 10cm lower than the Frenchman’s at 5.83m, a height Lavillenie has matched or bettered six times this summer, while he’s been over 5.90m or higher on four occasions and owns seven of the year’s top 10 vaults.
Yet, after clearing 6.16m indoors to break Bubka’s world record seven months ago, there remains a vague sense of disappointment that Lavillenie hasn’t got closer to his outdoor personal best of 6.02m.
He did suffer a foot injury, which ended his indoor season, although for Lavillenie it’s not been of fitness, but of matter waiting for the right conditions, and Le Grand Stade de Marrakech could provide the perfect end-of-season moment.
“This summer has been very difficult because of the weather,” he said. “At every meeting we faced wind – from the left, the right, always from the side – and in Stockholm it was very cold too.
“You have to deal with it and make good jumps anyway. I tried to forget about it. But jumping six metres is hard, and this year it was very difficult.
“The good thing is, now we’re at the end of the season the conditions are good. I think Marrakech could be the best.”
Lavillenie admitted that being under a brighter spotlight this year has brought increased pressure to perform and he is looking forward to the end-of-season break when he can indulge his other passions of motorbike racing and flying.
“There has been much more pressure and attention and that takes more time,” he said. “But the good thing is I have kept my love of pole vaulting whatever height I have been jumping, and I’ve been able to go through the season successfully.
“I’m not unbeatable, of course,” he added. “The pole vault is not easy. I have worked hard to keep my level of performances above the others.
“It has been an incredible season, but there is no rule to say I must win. I have to be conscious of this always to keep my focus.”
As for Europe’s chances of winning the cup for the third time, the team captain is cautiously optimistic.
“I think our strengths will be in the jumps where we have some big performers,” he said. “But we also have good sprinters in both men’s and women’s events.
“We are a young team and this is an opportunity for new talents to express themselves. As captain, I very much hope to be lifting the cup on Sunday.”
Matthew Brown for the IAAF