One can sympathise with Renaud Lavillenie after he was so rudely dispossessed of his Olympic pole vault title by Thiago Braz da Silva of Brazil on Tuesday. The Frenchman had led throughout the competition, clearing every height up to 5.98 metres at his first attempt. Da Silva in contrast, failed twice at that last height then had the temerity, on his sole remaining attempt to clear 6.03m, improving his personal best and the national record by all of eleven centimetres. The French world record holder (6.16m) then failed three times at 6.03 and 6.08m, thus losing his title, and launched a bitter attack on the unfair Brazilian crowd for booing his efforts to dislodge the local boy.
Villenie initially compared his treatment to that of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Games in Berlin, before apologising for the reference (and in any case, it was the Nazi hierarchy not the crowds who cold-shouldered Owens and the other ‘black auxiliaries,’ as they were called by the German media). But, if Lavillenie had had as good a grasp of history as the firm grip he usually has on his pole, he might have recalled another occasion in his own event which was an object lesson in how to treat the derision; because the crowd of ‘homies’ in the Lenin Stadium in Moscow 1980 vilified Władisław Kozakiewicz of Poland just as vociferously, if not more.
‘Kozak’ was contesting the gold medal with his own countryman, the title-holder, Tadeusz Ślusarski, and more importantly, the Soviet Russian Konstantin Volkov. Every time Kozak (and Ślusarski) prepared to vault there was a cacophony of boos and whistles, which Soviet officials and stadium commentators did nothing to suppress.
To cut a long story short when Kozak completed the vault which won him the title (he went on to set a world record of 5.78 metres), he bounced up off the landing cushion and delivered (and here Lavillenie should have known this) what the French call magisterially ‘un bras d’honneur’. This involves raising a clenched fist with a crooked elbow and slapping the free hand onto the elevated bicep). There is no English translation which does justice to the venomous irony of this expression (and gesture), but its US equivalent is ‘flipping the bird’ or in plain Anglo-Saxon ‘Up Yours!’
Of course, the crowd went ballistic, but Kozak had had the last laugh. His gesture (gest kozakiewicza) passed into folk history in Poland, and doubtless contributed further impetus to the embryo Solidarność movement which substantially contributed less than a decade later to the realisation that the Soviet Union was a busted flush (no matter what Donie Trump’s pal, Vlad Putin might think). But Kozak had long had enough of political and economic privation by then. He defected to Germany in 1985, then when the Wall came down made his home in Lithuania.
So, once again, you ignore the lessons of history, and look what happens!
One final point – I’m a great fan of Lavillenie, who manages to pack the most dynamic gymnasticism into his small (in contrast to other vaulters) though muscular frame. But another thing he might learn from the big bear with the Taras Bulba ‘tache. Win or lose, Kozak always looked like he was enjoying himself out there.