The Greatest Women High Jumpers: Iolanda Balas and Stefka Kostadinova

The latest in my occasional series on the greatest athletes in different events.

There are some events where it is very hard to choose who is the greatest of all-time. Others are easy. The women’s high jump is an event where one figure is head and shoulders above everyone else. Iolanda Balas of Romania is not just the greatest high jumper in history, she is one of the finest female athletes there  has ever been.  Her achievements are remarkable. After coming 5th in the 1956 Olympics she was undefeated for more than ten years and won over 140 consecutive competitions, a record for any athlete in any event. This included two Olympic golds and two European titles. She set fourteen world records raising the record by 16 centimetres in all. Her final world record lasted for ten years when a new technique of jumping had emerged.

The second best jumper is also clear-cut. Stefka Kostadinova of Bulgaria was the best in the world for six years. She was the dominant figure of the mid to late 1980s and in 1987 set a world record that stands today when winning the world title. She surprisingly lost in the 1988 Olympics but returned to the top to win gold at the 1995 Worlds and 1996 Olympics. She also won five world and four European indoor titles.

After the top two things become much more difficult to choose. There are a group of athletes who were the best in the world for three or four years and are closely matched. My choices in order are:

Rosie Ackermann (East Germany) – the outstanding jumper of the mid-1970s. She won Olympic and European titles and set four world records including the first 2 metre jump by a woman.

Blanka Vlasic (Croatia) – dominated the event in the late 2000s and was almost unbeatable for long spells. Won two world golds but so far hasn’t won the Olympic title.

Ulrike Meyfarth (West Germany) – Olympic champion aged 16 in 1972 and again in 1984. didn’t win many titles between but set world records and stayed near the top in between those titles.

Sara Simeoni (Italy) – in a long career she won an Olympic gold in 1980 and two silver medals. She also won a European title and four European indoor golds. She set two world records.

Heike Henkel (Germany) – dominant in the early 1990s when in successive years she won European, world and Olympic titles. Held the world indoor record for 14 years.

Kajsa Berqqvist (Sweden) – the best jumper of the mid 2000s although she only won one outdoor world title. Has held the world indoor record since 2006 and won two world indoor golds.

Hestrie Cloete (South Africa) – winner of two world titles (in 2001 and 2003) and two Olympic silver medals.

Dorothy Tyler (Great Britain) – had the longest career of any of the great jumpers. She won Olympic silvers in 1936 and 1948 coming desperately close to gold both times. She missed out on her best years due to the war but stayed at the top well into the 1950s when she won a second Commonwealth gold. She also held the world record.

Anna Chicherova,Fanny Blankers-Koen, Jean Shiley  and Thelma Hopkins just miss out although Chicherova may yet make it into the list.

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