By midnight, the Olympic Stadium can’t have been a quarter-full.
But in years to come, as this story grows in the telling, we’ll discover that the crowd must have been much larger than it seemed because so many Brazilians say that they were there. There was only one competition going on. The track finals were over and for an hour no one had anything to watch but the men’s pole vault, which had begun as a low comedy and finished, over three hours later, in high drama.
At the end of it, Thiago Braz da Silva, a 22-year-old Paulista, had won Brazil’s first gold medal in athletics not just at these Olympics, but any Olympics since 1984. The celebrations of the few thousand who had stayed were as loud as any that will sound around Rio this week. They were still chanting his name in the stands long after he was gone.
To win it, Da Silva had to vault 6.03m, 10cm more than his personal best, and 6cm more than the Olympic record set at London 2012 by the only other man still in the competition at that point, France’s Renaud Lavillenie. The air is rare up where Lavillenie lives, six metres and more above the ground, and a country mile ahead of his competitors. No one has ever vaulted higher than he did in 2014, when he cleared 6.16m.
Here, he was trying to become the second man in history to win two Olympic titles, after the “vaulting vicar” Bob Richards in 1952 and ‘56. He looked bound to do it, too. After he made his third vault, at 5.93m, every one of the five men left in the field needed to equal or beat their personal best to stay in with him.
Da Silva was the only one to do it, on his second attempt. When he landed, Lavillenie swallowed, set himself to go again. The bar moved up to 5.98m, a height Lavillenie has cleared many times, but well beyond anything Da Silva had ever been near achieving. Which made what happened next all the more extraordinary.
Da Silva raised the stakes on Lavillenie by choosing to sit out that height and take a shot, instead, at 6.03m. You sensed, right then, that channels were being changed across the country. All of sudden this pole vault contest was showing in houses and bars across Brazil, and had the attention of everybody who could see a TV or hear a radio.
Da Silva made it at his second attempt, the best vault of his young life. Lavillenie had already failed his first two. So he had one shot left. As he stood there at the end of the runway, the crowd began to boo. Their wild excitement drove them to it. Until that point they had been cheering everything.
But Lavillenie is a sportsman, and had even been applauding his own rivals a little earlier in the night. He refused to move, and flicked his thumb down to show his disapproval. They fell quiet, and he set off in his sprint, lowered his pole, pushed off and up into the air, 19 feet high and rising. But he brushed the bar with his knee, and started to sigh even as he began his journey back down to the mat.
The competition had run on so late because an ill wind was up in Rio, blowing nobody any good. The sailors struggled in 40 knot gusts out in Guanabara Bay, and across town at the Aquatics Centre, the springboard divers had been buffeted off their boards. At the Olympic Stadium, it was measured at a force seven on the beaufort scale, or a “moderate gale”, so stiff that when that you needed to lean forward to walk into it.
Not ideal conditions, then, for the already perilous business of pole vaulting. By the time the final started at 8.35pm, the wind had dropped a little but a torrential rain storm had just arrived. Two men tried to vault the opening height of 5.50m. Neither made it. A third, an ornery Argentine named German Chiaraviglio, threw down his pole before he’d made it to the end of the runway.
At that point, the organisers wisely decided to call the whole thing off for the foreseeable, and the vaulters broke for the cover of the ready room. The Olympic stadium has a lovely swooping roof which been ingeniously designed to provide no cover whatsoever from the weather, so the few thousand who had turned up to watch were soaked through.
After an hour, the pole vault was restarted from scratch, after much mop work on the track. Unfortunately no one had thought to dry off the mat, so the first man up, China’s Changrui Xue, landed with an enormous splash in the huge puddle on the far side of the bar. Judges awarded him 6.5 for the dive.
Lavillenie, meanwhile, took a seat over by the grandstand and had a friendly chat with his his coach. He could afford to bide his time, since it had started raining again and at this point the hottest contest was a blazing row between Chiaraviglio and assorted men in blazers about the conditions.
Lavillenie seemed more absorbed by the men’s 800m final, and strode over to the edge of the track to roar and clap for David Rudisha as he hurtled into the home straight. Lavillenie didn’t get interested in his own competition until the bar reached 5.75m. At the last European Championships this tactic somewhat backfired when Lavillenie passed the first four heights, came in at 5.75m, and duly failed all three attempts.
Here, though, the plan seemed like it was going to work rather better. By the time Lavillenie entered Shawnacy Barber, the man who beat him at the World Championships last year, was already out at 5.65m. And as Lavillenie cruised through the heights, 5.75m, 5.85m, 5.93m, the others fell away.
All but one, anyway, the kid from Sao Paolo competing in his very first Olympics, who had never even won a Diamond League meeting, much less a medal at the World Championships. Or Brazil’s new national hero, as he is now.
This article was written by Andy Bull at the Olympic Stadium, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 16th August 2016 06.09 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010