MOSCOW, (Reuters) – The world championships finally caught fire yesterday as the fans turned up to say farewell to Yelena Isinbayeva, only for the Russian pole vault queen to roll back the years and win an emotional gold medal against all the odds.
Without a global title since 2008, struggling for form and due to retire after this event, the 31-year-old fed off the energy produced by a finally near-full and raucous Luzhniki Stadium to triumph with a leap of 4.89 metres.
Ever the show-woman, Isinbayeva ended the night with an assault on her own world record, set in her pomp when she won the second of her Olympic titles in Beijing.
With chants of “Yelena” ringing in her ears, she fell short, but there was no trace of disappointment from her, the crowd or the organisers who finally got the memorable night they had craved.
There was plenty of drama elsewhere as LaShawn Merritt won the 400 metres as defending world and Olympic champion Kirani James hit the wall on the home straight.
The hundreds of yellow and blue-clad Ukraine fans, who had done their best to bring atmosphere to the stadium during the first few days, also got their reward when Ganna Melnichenko triumphed in the heptathlon.
Russia’s Elena Lashmanova won the 20km walk but only just, after she stopped with a lap of the track to go thinking the race was over.
Robert Harting claimed his third successive discus gold, Ethiopia’s Mohammed Aman won the 800 metres and Milcah Chemos Cheywa took the women’s steeplechase but outside their own countries they will not get a look-in on today’s sports pages.
Most big athletics events advertise themselves with an image of a sprinter but the posters around Moscow have a pole vaulter as their centrepiece – and now the world knows why. Twice Olympic and world champion, four-times world indoor champion and multiple world record holder, Isinbayeva has been an icon of the sport.
But after finishing sixth in the last world championships and third at the 2012 Olympics it seemed as if the glory days were behind her.
American Jenn Suhr and Yarisley Silva of Cuba, who had the five best vaults of the year, came to Moscow as favourites.
The home fans had other ideas, however, having finally decided to attend in numbers after nights of embarrassingly low crowds.
Tuesday felt different – they even mustered their first Mexican wave – and Isinbayeva, who knows better than anyone how to work a crowd, surfed the wave of goodwill.
With four athletes left, the bar went to 4.82 – beyond her best of the season. She cleared it on the second attempt, only for Olympic champion Suhr to follow her over to regain the lead on countback.
The bar was hoisted to 4.89 and, writing a script the organisers could only have dreamed of, Isinbayeva soared over at the first attempt.
Suhr and Silva could not match her, taking silver and bronze respectively, and the Russian tore off to climb into the crowd and hug her coach.
After the sideshow of the world record attempts there came a joyous lap of honour, complete with spectacular cartwheels and backflips, and she was still talking to TV crews 90 minutes after her victory.
Another Moscow fairy story turned out to have the last page torn out as heptathlete Brianne Theisen Eaton could not quite complete the combined events double two days after her new husband Ashton Eaton won the decathlon.
The Canadian did all she could in the final 800 metres when she needed to beat Melnichenko by four seconds but the Ukrainian sat on her shoulder throughout.
Melnichenko took gold with 6,586 points to Theisen Eaton’s 6,530 – both personal bests – and Dafne Schippers was third with a Dutch record 6,477.
In the absence of world record holder and Olympic champion David Rudisha, Aman duly won the 800m world title with a well-timed charge.
Djibouti’s Ayanleh Souleiman made all the running but had to settle for bronze as Nick Symmonds swept past him, only for Aman to overhaul the American to win his country’s first global gold at the distance in 1:43.31.
Cheywa led home Lydia Chepkurui for a Kenyan one-two in the women’s 3,000m steeplechase.
There was a dramatic conclusion to the women’s 20km walk when Olympic champion Lashmanova almost blew her chances when she thought she had crossed the finish shortly after entering the stadium but still had a lap to go.
Frantic waving from coaches and fans got the message over, though she was lucky to escape disqualification having broken into a jog, and she got going quickly enough to finish three seconds ahead of team mate Anisya Kirdyapkina.
China’s Liu Hong took bronze after another Russian, Vera Sokolova, was disqualified soon after entering the stadium.