The hour was late and most of the competition had ended, but no one was leaving Madison Square Garden. On the floor, athletes in brightly colored warmup clothes sat in small clusters, themselves now spectators. Officials, too, their stop watches put away for the night, stood in twos and threes, watching. The attention of everyone in the house, some 16,000 people, was fixed on one man—a boy, really—18-year-old Valeri Brumel of Russia.
Brumel was about to make his third and final attempt to clear the high-jump bar at 7 feet 3 inches. Already he had won his heralded duel with John Thomas, the best high jumper in the United States. Thomas had failed at 7 feet 2 inches. Now Brumel, in his first appearance in this country, was trying to match Thomas' world indoor record. He had missed on his first two tries.
Several times he kicked his legs high in the air, getting loose. Then, standing perfectly still, he raised his left hand, almost in salute to the crowd, the signal to the officials near the pit that he was about to start. His first few steps were superficial, simply walking strides to get him under way. Suddenly he was moving fast, almost violently, toward the pit. His left foot stamped into the boards and his body hurtled up. He kept his left arm snug to his chest, his left, or trailing, leg high. Then he was clear and falling, leaving the bar untouched above him.
Brumel was on his feet and running almost instantly after he landed. He raced over to Leonid Khomenkov, a Russian track official, who kissed him on the cheek. Meet officials grabbed for his hand, athletes applauded and photographers surged around him. Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue in New York City had a new hero—a hero from the smoky industrial city of Voroshilovgrad in the Ukraine.
February 27, 1961
An unknown talent
Until the Olympic Games last summer, few people outside of Russia had ever heard of Valeri Brumel. Then, in Rome, in what at the time seemed like an upset, he beat John Thomas in the high jump, finishing second to his Russian teammate, Robert Shavlakadze. Last month, on the same weekend that John Thomas jumped 7 feet 3 inches in Boston, Brumel did 7 feet 4½ inches (off a dirt floor, so not an official record) in Leningrad. That set the stage for Brumel's visit to New York and his duel with Thomas.
Brumel is a pleasant-looking boy. He is a little over six feet tall, and weighs about 175 pounds. He has a high forehead and prominent ears, brown hair cut fairly short and gray eyes. He smiles often, except when he is competing.
He was born in 1942 in the tiny settlement of Tolbuzino near Lake Baikal in Siberia. Only muffled echoes of the battles 3,000 miles to the west penetrated his area, so that Valeri was spared the hunger and hardship that left permanent physical marks on many of the war-born generation. After the war his family moved, and for the past eight years they have lived in Voroshilovgrad. His father is a coal mining engineer, his mother a mine technician. Valeri himself is a student at Moscow's Physical Culture Institute. He hopes one day to become an instructor in physical education.
Brumel arrived in New York four days before the meet. Four other Russians came with him—Khomenkov, the track official, a dark, squat, angry-looking man; Yuri Sedov, an interpreter with two gold front teeth; Evgeny Momotkov, a guitar-playing distance runner; and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, a broad jumper who speaks English. Brumel did no formal jumping before the meet, though he and Momotkov did get in a workout one afternoon on Manhattan College's outdoor board track. Brumel jogged around the track, occasionally sprinting and leaping high into the air. He stopped his jogging several times to make and throw snowballs.
In the oval of the track was a jumping pit filled with bits of foam rubber, just as the pit in the Garden is. Brumel tested it gingerly with his foot, then did a little flip, landing on his back in the pit. He looked delighted and sprawled comfortably on his back for a minute. Photographer Jerry Cooke, who speaks Russian, said, "He says they have nothing like this in Russia. They jump into sand."
Soon after they arrived in New York, Brumel and his compatriots submitted to a mass interview from the press. It was a confused session, largely because of the language barrier. Simple questions, relayed through the interpreter, Sedov, were easy enough: "Have you ever jumped off boards before? Do you have a girl in Russia?" (Answers: "Yes. Yes [blush], but just as all boys do.") Subtler questions got lost in the sea of translation.
Men about town
During the day the Russians did some sightseeing, like walking from the Empire State Building to Central Park and over to the United Nations building, but most of the time they just stayed in their hotel rooms. They were there on the afternoon before the meet, killing time before a banquet that night. The room—Igor Ter-Ovanesyan's—looked like any other athlete's room, messy. A suitcase was open, revealing a combination of clean and soiled clothes. On top of the bureau were several cans of fruit juice, a few grapes and a carton of eggs. "We haven't had any water since we've been here," said Igor. "Just juice. I eat those eggs in the morning, raw." Also on the bureau was what looked to be a bottle of hard candies. "Vitamins," said Igor. "Russian vitamins, American bottle."
Both Igor and Evgeny Momotkov seemed to overpower Valeri with the exuberance of their personalities. They appeared more relaxed and confident, but perhaps this was because they are older by several years. Evgeny sang Russian folk songs in a clear, strong voice. Igor displayed a few sketches he had made.
During all this, Brumel sat quietly in a chair in a corner of the room. At first he was alert, applauding Evgeny's playing, listening to the confusion of Russian and English. But as the other two Russians continued to dash about the room, producing gifts from bureau drawers, asking questions and trading stories, Brumel began to yawn and look at his watch. Several times his head nodded. Jerry Cooke spoke with him in Russian and then explained, "He is having trouble getting used to the change of time. He has it figured out that when he jumps tomorrow night it will be 6 a.m. Moscow time. He says he is always tired over here."
"He is also always hungry," said Igor, with an aside to Brumel in Russian. Brumel grinned.
Brumel may have been tired then, but the next night he was nothing but energy. Indeed, it was Igor and Evgeny who looked fatigued. Igor, broad jumping against Ralph Boston, who set an indoor record at 26 feet 1¾ inches, fouled on all six of his tries. Evgeny placed third in the two-mile in 8:56.5, which really was not bad at all, considering it was his first race on boards.
Brumel and Thomas appeared on the floor halfway through the meet without introduction or fanfare. Brumel stood at the edge of the pit, gazed at the bar which was set at 6 feet 3 inches, then turned and paced off the distance for his approach, pausing at intervals to place pieces of adhesive tape on the floor.
Thomas, having marked off his somewhat shorter approach, changed into his spikes. Unlike Brumel, he wore socks. As is his habit when he is not jumping or warming up, Thomas sat on the floor. Not so Brumel. Finding a folding chair across the arena, Brumel carried it back to the high-jump area and placed it down at such an angle that his back was both to the pit and Thomas. When Thomas saw the chair he went off and found one, too. Not once during the event did Brumel glance at his rival, not even as Thomas jumped. ("Why get yourself excited?" he explained later.)
The jumping began at 6 feet 3 inches. There were other contestants in the event, of course, so that the early pace was slow. After each of his jumps Brumel removed his spikes for brown leather moccasins. Periodically Sedov, the interpreter, massaged his legs.
When the bar was raised to seven feet, only three men remained—Brumel, Thomas and a Marine named Bob Gardner who jumped with his right foot bare. Thomas, jumping first, made the height on his first try, though he jiggled the bar. Brumel cleared it with ease. There then followed a final breather as Gardner missed three times. Thomas used the interval to consult with his coach, Ed Flanagan. Brumel stood and sat and stood and sat, but always with his back to the pit.
Now only Thomas and Brumel remained. Both made 7 feet 1 inch on the first attempt, although again Thomas made the bar dance. With the bar at 7 feet 2, Thomas missed. Brumel, jumping smoothly, cleared it. Thomas missed again. Now, suddenly, he had only one more chance. He had to make it, or lose.
Arms hanging loosely at his sides, his right foot slightly ahead of his left, Thomas stood at his starting position, seven long strides from the bar. He stared at the bar as if transfixed, five seconds, ten seconds. Then he moved forward with long, lazy strides. Up he went off his left foot in a slow, smooth roll. But he did not go up high enough, and the bar crashed to the ground with him.
As Thomas fell into the pit, beaten for the first time in his indoor career, Brumel, still sitting with his back to the pit, looked up at the interpreter. Sedov nodded, and Brumel spread his hands apart as if to say, "Well, then, that's it." He rose from his-chair, a smile on his face for the first time. He leaped high into the air, tucking his legs under him like a child jumping for joy. Within seconds he was surrounded by photographers. Sedov whispered something in his ear, and Brumel whirled and hurried over to Thomas, the first time in hours that he had looked at his opponent. The two shook hands.
It was only natural that while Thomas was still in competition, the loudest cheers—and groans—were for him. He was, after all, the local boy competing against a stranger. But when Thomas went out and it was Brumel against height, the crowd adopted Brumel. When he cleared 7 feet 3 inches on his final attempt, the crowd roared with pleasure. And when he tried 7 feet 5 inches (he missed all three times, but came close twice), a voice high in the balcony of the Garden rang out: "Come on, Valeri, bay-beee." The boy from Voroshilovgrad had found a home on Eighth Avenue.