If there is an image to epitomise the camaraderie within the pole vault, the photograph of Mondo Duplantis holding an umbrella over Sam Kendricks to protect him from the Gateshead elements would be it.
In far from ideal conditions for any discipline, let alone one which requires athletes to launch themselves skyward, some of the world’s best demonstrated how the show must go on, whatever the weather, at the Wanda Diamond League season opener in North East England on Sunday (23). Battling heavy rain, a strong blustery wind and cool temperatures, the USA’s two-time world champion Kendricks handed Sweden’s world record-holder Duplantis his first defeat since the 2019 World Athletics Championships – held in slightly different conditions in Doha – thanks to a second-time 5.74m clearance.
Both athletes had entered the competition at 5.30m, with Duplantis seeking a 24th consecutive victory and Kendricks looking to build on his win in Dessau just two days earlier. After first-time clearances at that height, they passed at 5.45m and then soared clear on their initial attempts at 5.55m. Also choosing to miss 5.65m, as the field took it in turns to shelter each other from the rain, Kendricks achieved 5.74m on his second go, while Duplantis had one try at 5.80m after two 5.74m failures. At first it seemed as though Duplantis had it, but as the 21-year-old hit the mat and looked up to the bar, it wobbled and fell, ending that winning streak which dates back to October 2019.
But these athletes have got each other covered, and not just in a literal under-an-umbrella sense. The unity in the event is nothing new and just as they share in each others’ successes – the scenes after Duplantis’ world records last year springing to mind – it’s that togetherness in trickier times which paints a fuller picture.
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“I’m a military man, I understand that hardship brings guys together – shared hardship especially,” said Kendricks, a first lieutenant in the US Army Reserve. “There was more honour in the event today than there would have been any other day and Mondo almost stole the show with that crisp 5.80m jump, but every time the conditions are weird it exaggerates mistakes and that bar fell and he understands the game. That’s just what happens and I came away with the victory, but that doesn’t mean I am necessarily on the same level with Mondo right now, I just got in his blind spot today.”
The image of Duplantis tightly gripping the umbrella handle to keep the shelter over Kendricks was quickly shared around social media and the world silver medallist was gracious in defeat.
“The conditions were what they were, but I just wasn’t able to adjust quickly enough,” Duplantis explained. “I would have loved to be able to get over that last bar, I felt that I was really close to it and I thought it was going to stay up, but it didn’t. I’m healthy and in one piece right now, after some conditions which are not the safest to jump in, so that’s the positive to take away from it.”
Asked about the camaraderie – which was also shown in the women’s shot put with Chase Ealey pictured holding an umbrella over Sophie McKinna – he added: “The grip is so important in what we do so we were just trying to make sure that our poles didn’t get wet, because it can be really dangerous if you have a little water on your grip. You don’t want to slip, especially not when that pole is bending and you’re high in the air. It wasn’t hard for me to hold an umbrella.”
For the athletes, perhaps it was an essential and unassuming gesture, but for the wider world, it was another example of the respect athletes have for each other.
Just the day before, Duplantis had shared another heart-warming story at the pre-event press conference, as athletes traded tales about their school days. Asked about his worst ever school report, Duplantis replied: “When I was in middle school we were able to pick between Spanish and French and I remember at the time, I was 13 or 14 years old, so I wasn’t jumping that high. Renaud (Lavillenie, France’s former world record-holder) was the best in the world so I thought I would take French so that if I was ever able to compete against him, I could speak French and be able to say a few words to him. But the class started at 7am so I slept in most of the days – it didn’t really work out that well and I never learned French!”
Had they both been competing in Gateshead, and Duplantis had mastered the language, perhaps those words would have been: “Je te couvre.”
Jess Whittington for World Athletics
Lead photo by Matthew Quine / Diamond League AG