One of the most beautiful moments of Rio 2016 came in the men’s pole vault. Thiago Braz da Silva, representing the host nation, shocked favourite and defending champion Renaud Lavillenie to take an incredible gold medal by clearing 6.03m, an Olympic Record.
A night of drama
That evening the Estádio Nilton Santos, home of Athletics for these championships, saw plenty of drama. David Rudisha defended his 800m title in style. Despite having his rhythm disrupted in the first 200m by team-mate Alfred Kipketer, the Kenyan held off competition from Taoufik Makhloufi and Clayton Murphy to take gold. In the women’s 400m, Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas narrowly beat Allyson Felix to the title. She tripped in the final metres, but avoided a tragedy by getting herself over the line with something of a “superman” dive.
No one could have expected the men’s pole vault to be the showpiece of the evening. Rain delays coupled with a high number of early clearances turned the event into a marathon of an affair, lasting not far from three hours. But the climax was worth waiting for.
One of the pre-event favourites and defending world champion, Shawnacy Barber, was an early casualty. The 22-year-old failed to clear 5.50m, far below his ability. He ended up in tenth and will have been bitterly disappointed with his performance.
This made Lavillenie of France, seen celebrating Barber’s failed clearance, the overwhelming favourite for gold. Behind him was American Sam Kendricks. Jan Kudlička of the Czech Republic and Pole Piotr Lisek were touted as potential medal candidates, but the home crowd could only hope, not expect, that da Silva could get on the podium.
Da Silva emerges
As more and more members of the field fell away, da Silva stayed with the favourites. The crowd cheered his every clearance and it seemed that he was ready to put in the performance of a lifetime. He did not disappoint. Kudlička and Lisek failed to clear 5.75m, and his brilliant effort to get over the bar just before they made their attempts was met with scenes of celebration from the home fans as they knew he was likely to pick up a medal.
No one in their right mind could have expected what would happen next. Da Silva continued to trade blows with both Kendricks and Lavillenie. Not long after he guaranteed himself bronze, the Brazilian went past 5.85m to outdo the American and pick up a silver medal.
Lavillenie, ever the competitor, continued to clear the bar with ease. He got to 5.98m almost without breaking a sweat. But da Silva matched him on every occasion, setting a new personal best in the process. The crowd gradually wound itself up into a frenzy as their athlete defied all expectations.
Then, at 6.03m, higher than what was then the Olympic record, both athletes failed on their first attempts. Lavillenie went for his second attempt and very nearly cleared the bar, just touching it when trying to get his body over. The French fans in the crowd briefly thought their man had won gold (da Silva couldn’t clear 6.08m, could he?) but they would have to wait.
Then, somehow, da Silva cleared 6.03m. The crowd favourite but event outsider had broken the Olympic record and almost certainly sealed gold. The Frenchman had one attempt to spoil the party. The tension in the crowd was obvious. They even started to boo the defending champion, who promptly responded by giving them a “thumbs down” gesture. Perhaps they’d got into his head. Regardless, he did not get over the bar.
Rio 2016’s magic moment
Brazil had won only its fifth Athletics gold in Olympic history. The crowd dissolved into total emotion. Adults and children alike were crying tears of joy; others were too busy going wild to worry about teardrops.
Although the stadium had seen Wayde van Niekerk break the 17-year-old men’s 400m World Record and Anita Włodarczyk break the women’s hammer throw World Record in barely the last 24 hours, this will be the defining moment of this Athletics meet and the Rio Olympics as a whole. Brazil’s recent problems have been well-documented, but da Silva gave the country something to smile in a way not even the footballers can dream of.
It’s easy at times like these to become saccharine, but this triumph truly encapsulates all that is good about the Olympics. This athlete has brought joy to millions of people both inside and outside of Brazil, despite never dreaming of doing so.