Rattled by home-country boosters at pole vault, silver medalist Renaud Lavillenie lashes out

2016 Rio Olympics - Athletics - Final - Men's Pole Vault Final - Olympic Stadium - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 15/08/2016. Renaud Lavillenie (FRA) of France gestures ahead of Men's Pole Vault Final. REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.

RIO DE JANEIRO – Once Canadian medal favorite Shawnacy Barber crashed out of the pole vault final prematurely, the gold medal came down to two men: legend Renaud Lavillenie of France and massive underdog Thiago Braz da Silva of Brazil.

The large Brazilian contingent within the small crowd at Olympic Stadium, if it had anything to say about it, wasn't going to let Lavillenie beat their countryman without doing everything in its power to throw him off his game.

And so, they booed and whistled every time he prepared to jump.

By the final leap, Lavillenie's third attempt at 6.08 metres, it got to him. He paused his preparation to offer two thumbs down to the fans.

"I was showing to people we are not in a football stadium. Track and field has no place for that," he said later, after that final jump failed and the defending Olympic gold medalist had to settle for silver, beaten by a kid who was no better than 15th at the last world championships. It wasn't the first time they whislted me. With the stakes and the fatigue, you don't need that. It was very disturbing and annoying because you feel the wickedness of the public."

Whether the booing distracted him, and how much, can't be measured. But until that point, Lavillenie was the picture of calm and cockiness, smiling between jumps, chatting with people, confident that with his greatest rival out of the picture the gold was again his. Clearly it rattled him.

Then, he went further.

"I'm a bit disappointed, (it was) not fair play from the stadium. You see it in football. It is the first time I have seen it in track and field. It is the biggest moment of your life. I can't be happy about that. Now I have to wait four years to get back the gold," the 29-year-old said. "For the Olympics it is not a good image. I did nothing to the Brazilians. In 1936 the crowd was against Jesse Owens. We've not seen this since. We have to deal with it."

We're going to assume, for the record, that Lavillenie undoubtedly has not personally witnessed every athletics meet in history since Owens at the 1936 Games in Berlin, Germany. And that he does, in fact, understand that Nazi Germany in 1936 and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2016 have little in common. So that was a bold statement, one he quickly realized was a little out of place.

It was also a little inoric because as fervently nationalistic as the Brazilian sports fans are (in all sports - you're not going to get the traditional "fair play" out of them), the French have not been without their moments.

Lavillenie's excitable coach, Philippe d'Encausse, was even evoking some mystical forces – maybe even candomblé –  to explain it. "This country is weird," he told the French media.

Lavillenie apologized on social media last night.

The story was big news back in France where apparently a pole vaulter can be somewhat of a rock star. Tut, tut, tut, no fair play, no sportsmanship, yada yada yada. Many Brazilians on Twitter responded to Lavillenie that it was his own arrogance that caused him to fail in his quest for gold.

Much ado about nothing?

Long after Owens in Berlin, Polish pole vaulters battled all of the Soviet motherland at the 1980 Summer Games.  What happened Monday night at Olympic Stadium in Rio was as tame as a five-year-old's tea party compared to that.

In those games, boycotted by most Western countries, the Russians went full-in for their jumper Konstantin Volkov. Every time Polish competitors Tadeusz Slusarski and Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz went to jump they booed, jeered, did everything they could to distract them.

There were even – this is an absolute shocker, given the current climate, isn't it? – suspicions the Soviet stadium managers were trying to change the wind patterns inside the stadium when non-Russian vaulters jumped, by opening and closing the large stadium doors.

When Kozakiewicz won the gold, he responded with a gesture that remains part of Olympic history.

It also became a political issue. After the Games, the Soviet ambassador to Poland reportedly demanded the pole vaulter be stripped of his medal over his "insult to the Soviet people". The Polish government responded that the "bras d'honneur", as it's called, had been an "involuntary muscle spasm." He was later named 1980 Polish sportsman of the year.

Kozakiewicz, who was born in Lithuania, competed for Poland, later defected to West Germany, and returned to his native land after the fall of the Soviet Union, was able to milk the moment.

How awesome is this?

Perhaps Lavillenie can turn his "involuntary thumb muscle spasms" into an endorsement of his own. But he probably doesn't need it; he reportedly earned more than a million Euros before tax in 2014.