The Russian-born pole vaulter has broken her own world record a staggering 24 times.
The queen of vaults
Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we will profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays four-day trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will reveal the full 50 at the end, but this week Vivek Chaudhary looks at athletics' Yelena Isinbayeva.
Anybody who stumbles across the official website of Yelena Isinbayeva could be forgiven for thinking that they have discovered photographs of the latest supermodel being championed by a leading fashion label. During a glittering career, which many athletics analysts feel has still to reach its peak, Isinbayeva has managed to combine the two ingredients seen as crucial to the receipe for modern day sporting success, particularly for female athletes - glamour and sporting prowess.
Isinbayeva is a sports marketing executive's idea of perfection, her fearsome athletic ability wrapped enticingly in drop dead gorgeous looks that have seen her walk the ramp at some of the world's leading fashion shows. Modern day womens' sport is obsessed with trying to strike the right balance between feminine appeal and sporting success, not always meeting with positive results. Isinbayeva has been heralded as the first of her generation to have married the two, making her not only one of richest athletes of all time, but also one of the most successful.
The Russian-born pole vaulter has broken her own world record a staggering 24 times. She is the world record holder at both indoor and outdoor pole vaulting and it is believed that she could have jumped even higher than her present record of 5.05 metres had there been any competitors even remotely close to challenging her. In a sport where height counts for so much, Isinbayeva, aged 26 who stands at over six feet tall, is quite simply head and shoulders above all those around her.
The elegant, eye-catching Russian is the first to admit that despite her love of sport as a youngster, pole vaulting was not her first choice. She initially wanted to be a gymnast but was told by her coach in 1997 that she was too tall and that given her height and slender, elongated frame she should switch to pole vaulting. Combining natural balance with speed, Isinbayeva established herself at the World Youth Games in 1999 when she cleared 4.10m to take her first ever gold medal.
But it was in the summer of 2002 in the English town of Gateshead that the athlete shot to prominence when she broke the world record by clearing 4.82m. It proved to be the start of a long series of record-breaking jumps that saw Isinbayeva competing not so much against other athletes as against herself, such has been her dominance of the sport. Nowhere has her title as the "queen of pole valuting" been more in evidence than at this year's Beijing Olympic Games, when Isinbayeva broke her own world and Olympic records, securing a second consecutive gold, following victory in Athens four years earlier.
The loudest cheers for any non Chinese athlete were reserved for Isinbayeva, who only joined the competition when the bar reached 4.70 meters. By that stage, seven of the 12 athletes taking part had already been eliminated. Away from athletics, Isinbayeva has secured a number of lucrative, multi-million dollar commercial deals and the combination of good looks, wealth and sporting success have made her one of the most widely recognised faces in Russia and its neighbouring countries.
There are rumours that she is on the verge of taking up a number of acting offers. Isinbayeva is well aware of her unique marketing appeal but has always insisted that the publicity surrounding her has not affected her performance on the field. She is considered to be the consummate, dedicated professional athlete who has remained focused despite the commercial demands of modern day sport. Time is still on Isinbayeva's side and following her success in Beijng and Athens she has insisted that she is determined to make it a hat trick of Olympic golds, come London 2012.
From humble beginings in Volgograd, Isinbayeva has emerged as one of the most respected and feared athletes within the sporting world. Having so far struck the right balance between the commercial and performance demands of modern day sport, Isinbayeva has been credited with raising the bar in more ways than one. There are those who praise Isinbayeva for her achievements on the field and, with her career still far from finished, insist that she is perhaps the greatest pole vaulter of all time. Others are perhaps drawn to her good looks and charisma.
For Isinbayeva herself, her unique position as an athlete who straddles the two worlds of glamour and sporting success is not that difficult to handle. She said prior to competing in Beijing: "The idea of being glamorous is very important to me. I always want to look like a girl. I don't agree that you are either a sportswoman or a girl." As if to underline her point, Isinbayeva flaunted striking black nail polish as she paused to add an extra two hair ties to her pony tail before breaking her own world record in Beijing.
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