Greece has an illustrious athletics history that stretches all the way back to the ancient Olympics but until Ekaterini Stefanidi took pole vault gold at the Berlin 2018 European Athletics Championships, no Greek athlete had ever managed to retain their continental crown.
Stefanidi’s victory added lustre to a magnificent run of success which has made her arguably her country’s greatest ever athlete, adding a second European outdoor title to her 2016 Olympic Games and 2017 World Athletics Championships gold medals, as well as a notching up victory at the 2017 European Athletics Indoor Championships.
Into the bargain, her success in London, which was completed with a national record of 4.91m which still stands, and her unbeaten outdoor season in 2017 saw Stefanidi voted as that year’s female European Athlete of the Year.
However, her start to 2018 had been far from flawless, with just a bronze medal at the World Athletics Indoor Championships in March and several below-par performances in early season Diamond League meetings – including failing to clear a height in Oslo – but three successive 4.80m outings or better immediately before she arrived in the German capital, including a confidence-boosting win at the Lausanne Diamond League meeting less than three weeks before, meant Stefanidi arrived in Berlin in top form.
The Berlin final that unfolded, to quote Athletics International, “was a cracker.”
Six athletes were still involved as the bar was raised to 4.70m.
Stefanidi’s compatriot Nikoleta Kiriakopoulou cleared that height at the first attempt and Russia’s Anzhelika Sidorova – competing as an Authorised Neutral Athlete – went over on her third, while Stefanidi (who had entered at 4.65m) and Great Britain’s Holly Bradshaw both passed.
Kiriakopoulou and Stefanidi then made 4.75m on their first attempts, although the latter held the gold medal position as she had no failures whereas her rival had a miss at 4.55m while Bradshaw cleared on her final attempt and Sidorova made the decision to pass, which proved to be a very unwise gamble.
Stefanidi kept up her flawless record in the enthralling contest when she cleared 4.80m with her first try whereas Kiriakopoulou needed two attempts as Bradshaw and Sidorova both failed to negotiate this height, leaving the Briton to take the bronze medal.
The defending champion then retained her title and wrote another chapter in the annals of Greek athletics history with a third time clearance at 4.85m to add four centimetres to her championship record from Amsterdam two years earlier. She ended her day with three unsuccessful attempts at a national record height of 4.96m.
“For me, this was a difficult year with a lot of problems. I came here with a completely different mentality, as I had never to defend a title before and I was the favourite after winning in Amsterdam, so it was very stressful. Especially, when there are so many girls in good shape,” reflected Stefanidi after the competition.
Kiriakopoulou’s silver – ostensibly on the comeback trail a year after giving birth to her daughter – meant that Greece had a one-two in an event at a global or continental competition, indoors or out, for the first time since Spyridon Louis and Kariloas Vasilakos finished in the first two places in the 1896 Olympic marathon!
Looking on, shoulder-to-shoulder from the stands were both their coaches Mitch Krier and Andreas Tsonis who congratulated each other as their athletes also embraced and then went on a lap of honour together draped in Greek flags under the bright lights of the Berlin Olympic Stadium.
The pair dedicated their medals to the victims of the wildfires that had raged along the Attica coastal area in Greece just a few weeks before Berlin, in which more than a hundred people lost their lives.
“This success will not bring people back, nor the homes and cars that have been burned. We can only hope to offer some joy to the people (affected),” commented Stefanidi soberly, before returning to her reflections about the competition.
“This was a great, really tough competition with many of the women close to their personal bests. I’m really pleased that we could take one-two, this is great for Greek athletics.
“The truth is, I was expecting Sidorova to be the big danger and to jump higher. Now I have to defend my world and Olympic titles,” added Stefanidi.
As history now records, Stefanidi was unable to achieve the first of her stated goals in Doha, having to settle for bronze last October behind the aforementioned Sidorova but Tokyo beckons next summer and no Greek athlete, even going back to 1896, has ever defended an Olympic title and who also would bet against her getting a third European title at Munich 2022.