It was not exactly an Olympic final in front of 80,000 screaming spectators. Or even an ordinary track and field event. But for fans starved of live sport since the lockdown, watching three of the world’s best athletes square off live in their backyards on Sunday proved to be a surprisingly enticing prospect.
The challenge, billed by World Athletics as the Ultimate Garden Clash, saw the London 2012 Olympic pole vault gold medallist Renaud Lavillenie face the world-record holder MondoDuplantis and the reigning world champion Sam Kendricks to see who could produce the most clearances over five metres within a 30-minute period.
Because of physical-distancing measures, Lavillenie was vaulting at his Clermont-Ferrand home in France, cheered on by his young daughter on a nearby swing. Duplantis, meanwhile, had to swerve past a palm leaf on the runway at his family home in Louisiana.
Not that it affected either man. They both cleared the bar 36 times to finish as joint winners, with Kendricks, who was competing from his back garden in Mississippi, finishing third with 26.
“It has been a very tough time, not only for me and the other athletes, but for the entire world, so it was fun to slip back into competition gear again,” Duplantis said afterwards. “With all the tracks closed, I haven’t done much running.”
A World Athletics spokesman later confirmed that “hundreds of thousands” had tuned into watch on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and embedded feeds, including the organisation’s president Sebastian Coe.
“This is a brilliant initiative, great fun and really innovative,” Coe said. “My thanks go to the athletes, their families and the World Athletics team for bringing live athletics back during lockdown.”
The British record holder, Holly Bradshaw, was even more effusive, describing it as one of the “most epic things I have ever watched”.
The reaction from sports fans, who have faced increasingly slim pickings since the lockdown, with Belarus premier league football, indoor darts and the Moscow Pro Liga table tennis competition being the best of a pretty thin bunch, was also overwhelmingly positive.
The 20-year-old Duplantis had initially appeared the most comfortable with the unusual format. That perhaps came as no surprise given his parents were both world-class athletes and his father built a pole vault pit in his garden to train in the 1990s.
Duplantis caught the leaping bug at four, had set world bests from ages seven to 12, and by 14 was able to soar higher than a double-decker bus. This year he shattered the world record, clearing 6.18m, and is seen as one of the biggest new stars of the sport.
But being forced to clear the bar every few seconds presented a very different challenge and the Swede was caught by the 33-year-old Lavillenie towards the end of the contest.
Suggestions that the pair might have an additional three-minute jump-off were quickly swatted away by the Frenchman, who was drenched in sweat and breathing heavily at the end. “I’m done,” he said laughing. “I don’t want to take any risks. I’ll share the gold with Mondo.
“I was really missing the feeling I get from competing,” he added. “It’s crazy but even doing this in my garden, I get the same feeling I’d get at a major championships. It was very exciting and I’m very happy to be a part of it. I’m not going to do it every week, but I’m happy to do it once a year.”
Duplantis was eager to go again but ultimately accepted his share of the spoils, adding: “Let’s share more sport like this, it’s fun.”
Kendricks, meanwhile, felt that the outcome may have been different had they been targeting bigger heights. “If the bar had been at 5.40m maybe it would have been a different story,” he added. “Preparing for this was honestly my best training of the whole spring.”
World Athletics is now exploring the possibility of holding other garden competitions in the coming weeks – events such as the shot put, high jump and long jump. But a spokesperson confirmed that the prospect of involving the world’s fastest sprinters, including Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith, is unfortunately out of the question. “It won’t be happening given most tracks are closed right now,” she added.