Rosemarie Ackermann from East Germany put up a stern defence of her high jump title at the Prague 1978 European Athletics Championships but the reigning champion had to give way to the brilliant Italian Sara Simeoni in a gripping head-to-head contest in the Czech capital.
In a match-up of different techniques which pitted the straddler Ackermann against Simeoni who was an exponent of the Fosbury Flop, the East German cleared 1.99m to put herself in position to become just the second female high jumper to clinch back-to-back European titles after Romanian legend Iolanda Balas in 1958 and 1962.
Ackermann was one of the last world class exponents of the straddle technique but she nonetheless became the first female high jumper to break the two metre-barrier - a feat she achieved in West Berlin in 1977 when she cleared 2.00m for the sixth world record of her career.
But Simeoni had taken the world record away from Ackermann and up to 2.01m in the weeks ahead of the 1978 European Championships in Prague, clearing this height on home soil in Brescia in a two-way women’s-only international match against Poland.
The Italian still trailed Ackermann on countback at 1.99m and she would have to match her recently set world record height to overtake her long-time East German rival who had beaten Simeoni for the Olympic title in Montreal two years prior and at the 1974 European Championships in Rome.
In what was at the time the highest quality women’s high jump competition ever which saw the previous championship equalled or bettered four times, Simeoni registered an initial failure at 2.01m but the Italian curved herself towards the bar for a second time and arched her frame over that height to leapfrog Ackermann and match her world record.
Ackermann sportingly congratulated Simeoni for her record equalling exploits but the reigning champion was not out of contention and came tantalisingly close on her final attempt at 2.01m. Both Ackermann and an absorbed crowd were about to erupt into celebration to greet what initially appeared to be a successful third-time clearance but the slightest brush with her trail leg was sufficient to dislodge the bar and hand the title to the Italian.
Simeoni was to continue jumping at 2.03m but the Italian couldn’t quite rewrite the record books again. However her feats on that day in Prague were still notable both in a domestic sense as well as in the context of the wider championships.
Simeoni became only the second Italian woman to win a European title - and the first since 1938 when Claudia Testoni won the 80m hurdles when the women still competed in a separate European Championships - and she was the sole non-Eastern European athlete to win a gold medal in the women’s programme in Prague.
Simeoni was one of two non-Eastern European winners at the boycotted 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow where the Italian found a 1.97m clearance sufficient to succeed Ackermann as the Olympic champion.
By the time Simeoni defended her Olympic title in 1984, the world record stood at the dizzying height of 2.07m but she put up a stern defence of her title, clearing 2.00m to win the silver medal - her third successive Olympic medal - behind West Germany’s Ulrike Meyfarth who regained her crown 12 years after unexpectedly winning at home in Munich when she was 16.
Simeoni held the world high jump record for just over four years but her 2.01m clearance stood as an Italian record for almost three decades. Not until Antonietta di Martino cleared 2.02m in 2007 did an Italian jumper surpass Simeoni’s record-breaking feats from 1978.