Pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva had nearly abandoned all hope of ending her stellar career with a third Olympic gold in Rio, saying she would hang up her spikes at a far less glamourous event on the banks of the Volga.
But the International Olympic Committee’s announcement on Tuesday that Russian athletes who are individually screened by world athletics governing body, the IAAF, might be allowed to compete in Rio under Russia’s flag has revived the two-time Olympic champion’s Rio dreams.
“Today I have to admit that deep down there is hope,” Isinbayeva told reporters after winning the Russian championship in Cheboksary with a 4.90-metre vault. “It hasn’t died completely.”
The crowd-pleasing athlete, 34, asked for the bar to be raised to 5.07m to the rhythmic clapping of an extatic crowd, in an attempt to beat the 5.06m world record she set in 2009.
Isinbayeva missed but celebrated her national championship victory with a backflip on the landing area in what was her first official competition since 2013 due to giving birth to a daughter in 2014.
Russia’s pole vault tsarina had said that Tuesday’s national championship final in Cheboksary — a Volga port city some 650 kilometres east of Moscow — would be the last track and field meet of her professional career if she could not compete in Rio.
IAAF’s decision last week to uphold Russia’s suspension over evidence of state-sponsored doping in athletics had cast heavy doubt about whether Isinbayeva — the first woman to clear the 5-metre bar — would be taking part in her fifth and final Olympics in Rio.
The IAAF left the door ajar for a few clean Russian athletes to compete in Rio as neutrals — a prospect Isinbayeva rejected, saying she would only compete under her country’s flag.
But the IOC’s announcement might now give Isinbayeva a loophole to end her career on the world stage after all.
“Now it means that the end of my career, I hope, will be in Rio,” she said. “I was desperate yesterday, but I’m very optimistic today.”
Isinbayeva, who has always steered clear from doping scandals, has often found herself surrounded with few rivals who could challenge her dominance in the sport.
In Cheboksary on Tuesday, she reminded her foreign opponents that her reign is not over.
“The main thing we should all be happy about is that Yelena Isinbayeva has the world’s best result of the season. A big hello from Russia to my rivals,” she said, waving to the cameras.
When IAAF suspended Russia in November, Isinbayeva said her foreign competitors would be upset by her absence from international competitions because they would have no-one to vault against.
“She pushed me to do to my best,” said pole vaulter Anzhelika Sidorova, who finished second behind Isinbayeva at the national championship with a 4.85m vault.”If I had won,it would have been too much.”
Former Olympic runner Yury Borzakovsky, who now serves as the head coach of the Russian athletics team, told AFP it would be “very tough” for Isinbayeva to wrap up her career at the Russian national championship.
Isinbayeva is also the queen bee of Russian athletics, forging her reputation as a fierce competitor with a fiery character and sharp tongue.
Isinbayeva — who had endorsed IAAF president Sebastian Coe when he ran for the post last year — took a jab on Monday at the IAAF, calling the members of its council “pricks” on camera before she smirked and walked away.
During the 2013 World Championship, she earned the ire of Western press and competitors after backing Russia’s controversial law banning “homosexual propaganda” to minors, vaguely-worded legislation critics say violates the rights of the LGBT community.
Her comments sent shockwaves through the athletics world and saw some Swedish track and field stars competing in Moscow paint their nails in rainbow colours.
Ahead of Tuesday’s final Isinbayeva implored her peers to carry on with their sport in spite of the ban.
“Keep practising track and field the same way — with dedication, love and zeal — because all this will go away, and you will remain,” R-Sport news agency quoted Isinbayeva as saying.