At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Brazilian pole-vaulter Fabiana Murer would have been a good bet to challenge world record-holder Elena Isinbayeva — that is, if Chinese track-and-field officials hadn’t lost Murer’s pole. Murer entered the competition at 4.45 and was set to attempt 4.55. But the pole she uses for that height was missing. Poles vary in length and flexibility and vaulters select one depending on the height they are jumping, the weather conditions and how many jumps they have already completed. Murer brought 10 poles to the Bird’s Nest arena, but when she went to retrieve the one ideal for 4.55 she found – to her shock – it was missing.
After searching frantically and futilely, a visibly upset Murer was forced to skip 4.55 and go to the next height. She failed three times at 4.65 meters, a mark well below her best – and ended up being bounced out the competition in 10th place. The setback was crushing at the time and was her mood was not helped when she later discovered that a Chinese official had found her pole in a storeroom. Someone had moved it by mistake.
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But after a month of tears and anger, the indefatigable Brazilian decided the incident could make her an even tougher competitor. “I left there very upset because I felt that they had taken away my chance of a medal,” she said at her home in Sao Paulo. “I had the third best mark in the world that year. For a month afterwards it was very difficult and I kept thinking, ‘Why Me?’ But then I thought, ‘I need to be better prepared.’ That motivated me to keep training and improving. Today, I am calm about it. But I also pay more attention. The poles and the mat, they have to be at a certain height and a certain angle and when I compete now I examine them. I always check that my poles are all there before I warm up. I am more careful.”
In the four years since the fiasco Murer, now 31, has come on leaps and bounds. She won the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Qatar in 2010 and then beat Isinbayeva to take the World Outdoor title in South Korea a year later. Today, she is considered a serious contender to dethrone Isinbayeva. Unfortunately for Murer and the other competitors, they can’t depend on their own performance to overcome the superlative Russian; she has to stumble if they are to have any chance of victory. The Russian struggled for a couple of years, even taking a year off in 2011. But she has bounced straight back to her best, breaking the world indoor record in February. She remains the only woman to jump over 5 meters and goes to London aiming to become the first female athlete to win three consecutive gold medals in a track and field event.
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As one of only four women to clear 4.85 outdoors Murer is considered as good a prospect as any of breaking Isinbayeva’s stranglehold on the event. And now that she has overcome her one-time fear that her friend, training colleague and sometime shopping partner is unbeatable she believes this could be her year. “I know that if I train well, if I gain confidence, if I can get close to 5 meters, then I can compete head to head with her,” she said. “That is the objective, to try and improve so I can get closer to her and compete against her for the first place.”