Outside of her native Romania, Iolanda Balas’ name and athletic accomplishments weren’t common knowledge to a large segment of the global population in recent years.
But her death at age 79, on March 11 in Bucharest, brought forth greater recognition of who she was — an Olympic legend. A two-time gold medalist who soared to victory No. 2 at the 1964 Tokyo Games.
Balas, a high jumper, was one of the greatest athletes in the 20th century — actually, any century, to be precise. (In 2012, she, was inducted into the IAAF’s inaugural Hall of Fame class.)
In addition to her athletic brilliance, Balas, whose funeral is scheduled for Monday, held important Romanian sports leadership positions for many years. She served as president of both the Romanian Athletics Federation (1998-2005) and Romanian Track and Field Foundation, and was vice president of the Romanian Olympic Committee from 1998-2002.
She also struggled to accept the reality of her fame, once saying in an interview, “It’s not easy to be a star.”
“A star must control her attitude, words, lifestyle all the time,” Balas was quoted saying, according to aipsmedia.com (the International Sports Press Association website). “I put up my fame as with a necessary evil, always striving to keep up with the expectations. The difficult thing was that all those training sessions and competitions on a track of concrete and dross gave me a lot of micro-traumas, little by little. I held on and tried to postpone my retirement until 1968, to finish with a medal at the Olympic Games in Mexico, but it didn’t happen. My leg, which made my jump so high so many times, didn’t obey me anymore.”
And thus her retirement in 1967 — the result of an Achilles tendon injury — marked the end of a magnificent era.
Balas, who was born in Timișoara, Romania, on Dec. 12, 1936, was a lifelong celebrity and heroine, as evidenced by the many prestigious honors she received over the years.
The news website nineoclock.ro detailed these accolades, including “the title of Honored Master of Sports (in 1958), the Romania’s Star Order (1962), Sports Merit Order (1966), Romania’s Star National Order in rank of Officer (2000).” Romanian royalty also honored her, with King Mihai I presenting her with “the royal decoration ‘Nihil Sine Deo’ for outstanding merits,” at Bucharest’s Elisabeta Palace on Sept. 13, 2010, the website reported. What’s more, her image appeared on Romanian stamps that were issued in 2004.
Balas was also the first Romanian woman to win an Olympic gold medal.
Romanian Athletic Federation president Ion Sandu said, “Mrs. Iolanda Balas was a great person, the greatest Romanian athlete of all time, one of the world’s top 20 athletes of all time. It is a great loss to the Romanian athletics, for the Romanian and world sports.”
Mel Watman, a prominent track and field journalist, witnessed Balas at the height of her powers in Tokyo.
“I was lucky enough to watch Iolanda in action many times, including the Tokyo Olympics of 1964,” Watman, a founding member (in 1963) and honorary president of the British Athletics Writers’ Association, told The Japan Times. “She was a great crowd pleaser.”
Watman, who has written many books, including “Olympic Track and Field History,” reported from the 1960 Rome Games and chronicled the 2012 London Games and seven Olympiads sandwiched between them. A longtime writer and editor at Athletics Weekly (1961-88), he is one of the world’s foremost experts on track and field. Presently, he is the co-editor of Athletics International, an email newsletter with readers in several dozen countries.
He speaks with authority when the subject of Balas’ greatness is mentioned.
“No athlete has dominated an event to the extent of high jumper Iolanda Balas,” Watman said.
“Athletes like Edwin Moses in the 400-meter hurdles and Carl Lewis in the long jump reigned supreme for a long period but no one has approached the winning streak established by the 1.85-meter tall Romanian with the phenomenally long legs.”
“By the time she retired in 1967 she had jumped 1.80 meters or higher in 94 competitions compared to just five by all her opponents combined,” Watman noted.
Balas, winner of 16 consecutive national titles, made her Olympic debut at the 1956 Melbourne Games, where she placed fifth that December.
“Astonishingly, she never lost another competition until June 11, 1967,” Watman said, adding that her 150-event winning streak “surely will never be matched.”
“Not only was she undefeated but she was in a different class from her contemporaries,” he said.
Balas established her first world record in ’56, leaping 1.75 meters. She bettered that world record a jaw-dropping 13 more times, increasing the height to 1.91 meters in ’61, a record which stood until 1971.
“In an era before there were world championships, she won every major title available: Olympic in 1960 and 1964, European in 1958 and 1962,” Watman stated. “Her margin of supremacy was astounding: at the Rome Olympics she cleared 1.85 meters to win by 14 cm; four years later in Tokyo she finished 10 cm ahead of her closest rival with a leap of 1.90 meters. No one since has won the Olympic title by more than 4 cm.”
The New York Times’ 1964 Olympic coverage from Tokyo showcased certain marquee events; others were briefly mentioned in passing, including the women’s high jump final. The Oct. 16 issue, for instance, reported the news of Balas’ second gold medal in a single paragraph. Her given name was spelled “Yolanda.”
Regardless of how her name is/was spelled, Balas leaves a special legacy in the annals of track and field.
Simply put, Jon Hendershott, senior editor emeritus for Track & Field News, believes Balas cemented her status as an all-time great by, well, winning.
“I feel she has been the finest high jumper in women’s athletics history,” Hendershott told this newspaper earlier this week. “There are a lot of details one could mention about Balas … but I think three statistics sum up the greatness of Balas.”
Hendershott cited Balas’ aforementioned victory streak, “the longest winning streak in women’s athletics history;” her 15 world records (14 ratified) — “East Germany’s Rosi Ackerman is next with seven”; and the 1960 and ’64 Olympic titles — “no other women has ever won consecutive games high jump titles.”
In a Sports Illustrated article (“The Man Who Never Loses”), which appeared in the July 30, 1984, issue, Curry Kirkpatrick profiled Moses, the legendary 400-meter hurdler, during his heyday, with an 89-race winning streak in the books. That streak continued until 1987, covering 122 races and an astonishing 107 finals.
“Moses not only never loses, he never comes close to losing,” Kirkpatrick wrote, citing Balas’ streak to put the American hurdler’s brilliance in context.
Though her athletic prowess raised the bar for Romanian athletics, Balas maintained mixed emotions about the reality of her family’s ordeals. It’s been reported that her father, who had family roots in Hungary, became a Soviet captive while serving in Hungary’s army, and eventually returned to Budapest.
Balas never defected, fearing backlash for her family during the Cold War, and thus her family was split between her homeland and her parents’ native land.
“I feel sorry that I did not win Olympics for Hungary,” she said in a 2005 interview, according to the website sportgeza.hu. “But a person represents herself and after that a nation. It was not given for me to beat the Hungarian colors, to make happy those who speak my mother tongue. It evolved this way and I feel sorry for it, but I would have gone mad if I would (have) thought constantly about this contradictory situation.
“I hope that besides Romanians also Hungarians are proud of me.”
Keep an eye on . . . Vashti Cunningham: The 18-year-old daughter of former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham is a rising star in the women’s high jump. She’ll be put to the test on Sunday at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland, Oregon.
Cunningham, a high school senior from Las Vegas, won the U.S. indoor title last Saturday, clearing 1.99 meters and topping her national high school record and the junior world mark in the process.