By Scott Malone and Jack Stubbs
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Brazilian Thiago da Silva edged out world record holder Renaud Lavillenie of France to win the Olympic pole vault in dramatic fashion on Monday and give the host country its first athletics gold medal of the Games.
Against a back drop of raucous fan cheering, Da Silva skipped an attempt at 5.98 meters and pushed hot favorite Lavillenie to 6.03, which the Frenchman failed twice and the Brazilian passed at the second attempt to set an Olympic record.
The upset gold was assured after Lavillenie, who was continually booed by the passionate Rio crowd, failed to clear 6.08.
“The gold? Incredible. My first time over six meters,” Da Silva told reporters. “My home town wanted me to win.”
Shown the vault again by a TV interviewer, Da Silva said: “Wow, that was beautiful. Thank God.”
The Olympic Stadium crowd had been quiet early in the night, which began with a rain delay, but quickly got behind their 22-year-old countryman, cheering him wildly and booing Lavillenie as he prepared for his final jump.
Lavillenie gave a thumbs down signal but the crowd continued, changing to cheers when the Frenchman failed at 6.08.
“For the Olympics it is not a good image,” Lavillenie said of the booing. “I did nothing to the Brazilians.
“In 1936 the crowd was against Jesse Owens,” he said in reference to the Berlin Olympics when the black American sprinter won four golds.
“We’ve not see this since. We have to deal with it.”
Brazil’s raucous fans, who have brought soccer culture to a number of Olympic events, have confounded some athletes used to more sedate crowds.
Even Da Silva, who only took up the sport at 14, was surprised by the exuberance.
“The crowd were cheering me too much,” he said. “I had to fix my mind on my technique, forget the people.”
Outside the quarter-full stadium, shouts echoed through the darkened streets of Rio’s Jardim Botanico neighborhood upon Da Silva’s win.
It was Da Silva’s highest jump ever by 10cm, earning the host country’s second gold of South America’s first Olympics.
It was also the first athletics gold achieved by a Brazilian man since Joaquim Cruz won the men’s 800m at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Sam Kendricks took bronze for the United States after clearing 5.85, with Czech Jan Kudlicka and Piotr Lisek of Poland in fourth.
(Editing by Ed Osmond/Sudipto Ganguly/Patrick Johnston)