In the still,dead heat of a summer day in 1895, with the eyes of 25,000 upon him, MichaelSweeney, a 5-foot 8-inch lithographer from New York's east side, faced ahigh-jump bar set at the impossible height of 6 feet 5 5/8 inches. Mike Sweeneyapproached with crouching steps, sprang and, with a curious twist, shot cleanlyover. The crowd roared. Hats sailed into the air. The band blared Hail to theChief and the New York Police Commissioner, none other than Theodore Roosevelt,helped this famous man Sweeney to his feet. As officials measured the bar 10times to be sure Sweeney had done the impossible, the crowd gave three cheersfor Sweeney and three cheers more. Sweeney predicted that someday someone wouldclear 7 feet, but it was 17 years before anybody else did even as well asSweeney.
The 7-foot jumpcame to be last summer, of course, when Charley Dumas cleared 7 feet½ inch inthe U.S. Olympic trials. As the first year of the 7-foot era ends, in theclassy field of high jumpers gathering for the national championships atDayton, Ohio next week, it will take a jump of 6 feet 10 or better beforeanybody throws a hat in the air. High jumping has moved along from one brokenrecord to the next, becoming a precise art but one flexible enough still forragged and rugged individualists who cling to outdated ways or improviseboldly.
The jumpers whohave edged the record up 8½ inches in 70 years have used four basicallydifferent styles. The first, the scissors, was merely what any man wouldlogically do in stepping sideways over a low fence. Then came Sweeney, sellinga new line. He approached head-on, swerved and, after kicking his inside legup, he got an extra snap over the bar by cutting his following leg under hislead leg. This became known as the "eastern style" after 1912, whenGeorge Horine of Stanford came out of the West reversing the whole procedureand finally breaking Sweeney's record with a 6-foot 7-inch jump. In his"western roll" Horine led with the outside leg, then tucked hisfollowing leg under him to clear the bar on his side. When the rules weresimplified in 1935 so that a man could clear the bar in any way he cared solong as he took off on only one foot, jumpers took up the straddle style,taking off as in the western roll but bringing the following leg up free, nottucked, so the jumper lies belly down atop the bar.
Today thestraddle is considered the most efficient way of getting over. But any coachmaking flat statements as to the form, training or physique needed forchampionship jumping runs the risk of being stoned to death by exceptions tothe rule. Sweeney's eastern style has long been considered obsolete, yet in the'48 Olympics, a well-knit Sweeney throwback, John Winter of Australia, beat allthe straddlers and the western rollers. The western roll is generallyconsidered an interim style, for use by jumpers progressing to the straddle,yet, after Straddle Jumper Les Steers of Oregon in 1941 set the record at 6feet 11 inches, a western roller, Walt Davis of Texas A&M, took it back in1953 with a jump of 6 feet 11½.
Anotherhigh-jumping curiosity is that not one of the first six record breakers whopushed the record to 6 feet 9½ inches was over 6 feet tall.
The greatest ofthe world's short men will be in action at Dayton. He is Phil Reavis ofVillanova, the national indoor champion, who is 5 feet 9 inches tall and hasjumped 13 inches over his head. Reavis' style (pictured on page 48), likeDumas', is considered near perfect; yet the styles of the two are markedlydifferent, so perfection remains a fluid thing. Also at Dayton there will bethe strangest stylist ever to thrust himself up 6 feet 9 inches into the topflight of jumpers—Bob Barksdale of Morgan State, who depends on a violentthrust from both legs to get clear of the bar. In this respect, Barks-dale isreverting to the old eastern form of Sweeney, but in every other respect he isa man alone—a high-jumping dodo, obsolete yet as modern and bizarre andbeautiful as a Picasso painting of a man slipping on a bar of soap.