Renaud Lavillenie has been left flying the French flag for his country’s athletics team at the Olympic Games, the pole vaulter arriving in London in the form of his life and odds-on favorite to claim gold.
After claiming a disappointing bronze at last year’s world championships in Daegu, South Korea, Lavillenie underwent an operation on a hand he broke when a pole broke in training in December last year.
Suddenly, his Olympic hopes were put on ice, but the 25-year-old Clermont native returned to competition in February and since then has been unbeatable.
He successfully defended his world indoor title in Istanbul, Turkey, in March with a soaring best of 5.95m, before dominating the European outdoor season and going on to also defend his European title in Helsinki with a season-leading 5.97m.
Lavillenie’s battle in the Finnish capital with German rival Bjorn Otto has been one of the highlights of the athletics year.
The duo employed a brazen gamesmanship that saw the Frenchman hold his nerve to the end and cement his world No. 1 ranking with a classic podium-grabbing performance.
It was his ninth victory in a row and another in which he has never vaulted lower than 5.82m to win.
Lavillenie said that skeptics who doubted his entry into the European championships so close before the Olympics had been answered.
“There cannot be a better preparation for the Games than a competition like that,” he said, calling it “one of the most beautiful in my career.”
However, he warned: “Just because I won in Helsinki, does not mean that I’ll win in London, but it’s helped me prepare calmly.”
“In terms of performance, I’m still not at my best level, but in terms of managing a competition I’m really there,” he said. “It’s proof that work pays off and it really pays, as it must.”
His run to form could not have come at a better time.
Australia’s defending Olympic champion Steve Hooker is still to recover his form after an injury-plagued couple of seasons and Lavillenie’s main competition now seems likely to come from German duo Otto and Malte Mohr, Poland’s Pawel Wojciechowski and Cuba’s Lazaro Borges, the latter two the surprise podium toppers at last year’s world championships.
The French athletics federation will be crossing their fingers that Lavillenie arrives in tip-top shape, as their cupboard of potential medalists looks particularly bare.
Christophe Lemaitre, heralded as Europe’s new sprinting sensation after setting a new French record of 9.92 seconds last season, faces an severe uphill battle to break the US and Jamaican hegemony over the 100m and 200m.
Another medal hopeful would surely have been triple jump tyro Teddy Tamgho, but he was ruled out after failing to recover from an ankle operation.
Yoann Diniz, in the 50km walk, and Vanessa Boslak, in the women’s pole vault, remain France’s other main hopes in the British capital.