Thiago Braz da Silva in the pole vault at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)
On a tumultuous night inside the Olympic Stadium, Thiago Braz became Brazil’s first men’s Olympic athletics gold medal winner for 32 years with an utterly spellbinding victory, which sent the home fans into ecstasy.
In a competition in which Braz and the defending champion Renaud Laveillnie tackled an absorbing competition like two champion prize fighters, the Brazilian finally delivered the knockout blow with a stunning and unexpected 6.03m clearance deep into the Rio night.
Lavillenie on this occasion had to settle with silver with a best clearance of 5.98m, although when he has time to reflect on the performance, he can look back with enormous pride on the way he competed.
Bronze went to USA’s Sam Kendricks with a best of 5.85m but tonight was all about Braz, the 22-year-old 2012 world U20 champion delivered the best night of his career when it mattered most and achieved a feat which he and all of Brazil will remember for the rest of his life.
Latvia’s Pauls Pujats was the only casualty at the opening height of 5.50m, failing to register a valid jump. Five men exited the competition at the next height including world champion Shawn Barber of Canada, Czech Republic’s Michal Balner, 2014 world indoor champion Konstadinos Filippidis of Greece, Argentina’s German Chiaraviglio and Japan’s Daichi Sawano.
The competition started in earnest at 5.75m as Renaud Lavillenie finally made his entrance into the competition – which had been delayed by more than 30 minutes following an earlier deluge of rain – with an emphatic first-time clearance.
Czech Republic’s Jan Kudlicka and Poland’s Pitor Lisek matched Lavillenie’s feat with Braz staying alive thanks to a second-time clearance. Kendricks missed his first attempt and then passed to 5.85m.
The next height saw the end for China’s Xue Changrui – after two earlier failures at 5.75m – while the eventual three medallists all cleared with their first effort.
After two failures at 5.85m, Kudlicka and Lisek gambled and passed to 5.93m, but both found that beyond them.
With the three medallists now decided, it was a case of which athlete would take which medal.
Lavillenie seemingly strengthened his position by successfully negotiating 5.93m with his first effort while Braz – receiving increasingly passionate backing from the home fans – needed two vaults to equal his South American record.
Kendricks made three valiant attempts at 5.93m, but to no avail and he had to be satisfied, which he clearly was, with the bronze medal.
Braz gets memorable gold
The defending champion was first up at 5.98m and he continued to apply heavy pressure on his less experienced opponent with yet another first-time clearance.
However, Braz refused to buckle in this high-stakes game and, with nothing to lose and the silver secure, decided to pass at this height and wait until the bar moved up to 6.03m.
Lavillenie, who was receiving some rather unsporting boos from elements of a partisan home crowd, came close with his first attempt at 6.03m, just brushing the bar on the way down.
Braz mistimed his first attempt and must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when Lavillenie narrowly missed his second try.
However, urged on by the boisterous Brazilian crowd chanting his name, Braz rose to unprecedented heights by clearing 6.03m to set a South American and Olympic record, and climb to equal seventh on the world all-time list.
Lavillenie looked shell-shocked.
As Braz and his coach Vitaly Petrov celebrated the moment, the Frenchman raised the bar to 6.08m in an effort to produce the perfect counterpunch.
Lavillenie gave the thumbs down on the runway to those in the crowd who chose to jeer him but he was never close to achieving the height needed to wrestle the gold medal from Braz. The local fans were left to celebrate what was their first men’s Olympic gold since Joaquim Cruz won the 800m at the 1984 Olympics.
"I am very happy," said an elated Braz. "We worked really hard for this moment – not for the gold, but to take a medal. For Brazil, it is amazing. I try to do my best for the people, they believe in us.
“It’s incredible. My first time over six metres. My home town wanted me to win.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF