Hooker getting over the yips
Hooker getting over the yips

Reigning Olympic pole vault champion Steve Hooker will show today whether he still has a head for heights.

A sense of morbid fascination surrounds the 30-year-old's campaign to defend his Beijing Olympics title, which starts with today's preliminaries.

Will it be a train wreck? Will he get off the ground? Will the swirly conditions let the gremlins back in? Will he make the final? Is he any chance of a medal?

Those questions have been queuing for more than a year since Hooker's dramatic decision to take a three-month sabbatical from competition in February this year after he developed the yips.

The problem surfaced at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, last August when his defence of the title he won so heroically in Berlin in 2009 fell apart when he did not get airborne in his three attempts.

After his return to competition in a makeshift facility in a Midland Railways workshop, Hooker has only once cleared 5.72m - the qualification mark for the Olympics - in his overseas campaign and that was at his final lead-in meeting last month in Szczecin, Poland.

Hooker declared after that vault it could be a momentum builder.

"It's the best jump I've done in a couple of years and I felt some old feelings I haven't felt for a while," he said.

"There's a special feeling at the Olympics, you walk on air a little bit. I think anything's possible.

"And that's definitely how I felt four years ago."

Just before Szczecin, Hooker failed abysmally at a Diamond League meet at Crystal Palace, running through on two of his three attempts at 5.40m.

In the lead-up to Beijing, and at the peak of his powers, the red-haired vaulter won the event with a leap of 5.97m.

In other European competitions before Szczecin, his best effort was 5.42m and three times he has failed to register a height.

And fellow vaulter Alana Boyd, who was unsettled by the unpredictable winds in her competition, said it would be tough for the men if conditions were similar.

"If it's the same type of winds, and if the pit is the same way for the guys, it's going to difficult," Boyd said. "But Steve's tough, he's proved that time and time again."

Hooker's doubters say it would take something remarkable for the Perth athlete to even get through to the final.

While Hooker's been meddling around and mucking up at relatively low heights, the world's best have been on the way up.

Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie has six of the best 10 leaps of the season, while Germany's Bjorn Otto and Malte Mohr have moved into medal contention.

Lavillenie has cleared 5.97m and is undefeated in major championships in 2012. Otto has consistently pushed the Frenchman and has cleared 5.92m three times.

Mohr has emerged as a contender after setting a personal best outdoors of 5.91m.

These heights are stratospheric compared to Hooker's 5.72m.

History suggests the claims of the Australian champion, who once held every major world title, shouldn't be dismissed lightly.

But there's a lot to beat - quality opposition, his nerves and the conditions. It's a big ask.

The West Australian

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