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Munich Magic | Meyfarth's teen triumph in the high jump at the 1972 Olympic Games

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Austria’s Ilona Gusenbauer, the 1971 European champion and world record-holder, was favourite to win the women’s high jump title at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. 

As for the hosts – they had three contenders in Ellen Mundinger, Renate Gartner and a 16-year-old who had finished third at the recent West German Championships. 

This 1.90m-tall jumper, who had embraced the backward jumping-style pioneered by the 1968 Olympic champion Dick Fosbury, was definitely one for the future. 

But nobody realised how soon that future would come around. 

Meyfarth, who hails from Frankfurt, had arrived at her home Olympics with a personal best of 1.86m, so the qualifying mark of 1.76m was something she managed without blemish – and she was joined by 22 rivals in the final who had also surmounted that height. It was going to be a very long final.

Gusenbauer ran into a spot of early trouble in the final, requiring two attempts to clear 1.71m and 1.76m although she recovered her form to clear 1.79m and 1.82m on her first attempts. 

However, six other jumpers, including Meyfarth, had cleared up to 1.82m without blemish. 

The next height, 1.85m, sorted the field out ruthlessly, as only three jumpers cleared it without incurring any faults – Great Britain’s Barbara Inkpen, Bulgaria’s Yordanka Blagoeva and Meyfarth. 

Gusenbauer had managed 1.85m at her third attempt to become one of the four others to qualify for a go at 1.88m. 

Only three managed that height – with the Austrian managing it on the second attempt to move into third position behind Blagoeva and Meyfarth, who went over first time. 

These three, certain of medals, moved on to 1.90m – which only the German teenager would clear on her second attempt, meaning Blagoeva, who had also cleared 1.88m on the first attempt, won silver ahead of the Austrian jumper. 

Could Meyfarth go even higher?

Established as an unlooked-for home champion – Mundinger and Gartner had both gone out at 1.85m – Meyfarth decided to up the ante and set the bar at 1.92m, the world record height that had been set by Gusenbauer in Vienna the previous September. 

By now the youngest – and still the youngest athlete – to win an individual athletics title at the Olympics, Meyfarth became joint world record-holder as she cleared the height at her first attempt. 

As Athletics Weekly reported: “The bar was raised to 1.92m and Ulrike took a customary close look at it before striding off to her check mark. The stadium was hushed. She ran up…and then someone shouted out. Well meant, probably, but it put her off, and she stopped and went back, while the crowd turned and glowered at the well-wisher.

“She ran in again, and amid a noise like a bomb explosion, flopped cleanly over the world record height. It was like a fairytale.”

Follow that! It was not easy, and her form ebbed and flowed over the next few years as, by her own admission, she struggled to cope with the attention and celebrity that came her way in the wake of her stunning breakthrough performance at the 1972 Olympic Games. 

She finished seventh at the 1974 European Championships before failing to qualify for the defence of her title at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. 

In 1977, she moved clubs from Cologne to the famed Bayer Leverkusen - of which she is still a member today - and changed coaches to Gerd Osenberg who had worked with the 1972 Olympic long jump champion Heide Rosendahl and was later to guide the 1992 Olympic high jump champion Heike Henkel. 

“In 1977, I just decided to start all over again and that’s what I did,” Meyfarth said. "Gerd wasn’t really a high jump coach, so we learnt together. It was a long road but by 1982 I was back on the international scene." 

Gold again twelve years later in Los Angeles

She might well have been a medal contender at the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games but for the West German boycott. However, after almost a decade of East Germany’s Rosemary Ackermann and Italy’s Sara Simeoni taking top billing, she won at the 1981 World Cup and also won the 1982 European indoor title with what was then a national indoor record of 1.99m. 

At the 1982 European Athletics Championships in Athens, Meyfarth amassed a flawless record as the only one of the trio to clear 2.00m, equalling the West German record she had set in the national championships in Munich seven weeks earlier. 

With the bar raised to 2.02m, Meyfarth brought it down twice but on her third attempt – her tenth jump of the competition – she cleared it with her torso passing well clear and the backs of her legs merely tickling it. 

That added one centimetre to the world record that had been set by Simeoni at the previous European Championships in Prague four years earlier. 

The following summer, Meyfarth improved the world record again to 2.03m at the European Cup in London and while Bykova cleared the same height and was given a share of the world record.

Meyfarth’s career was to be capped by a second Olympic gold medal 12 years after her first, in Los Angeles, and having been the youngest Olympic athletics champion in an individual event, in 1984, she was at the time the oldest ever women’s Olympic high jump winner. 

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