Search

You can't keep a good high jumper down

Oct. 20, 1969
Oct. 20, 1969

Table of Contents
Oct. 20, 1969

Eyes Of Texas
World Series
  • With each winning game, the legends grew. Their followers transmogrified the World Series-bound New York Mets into characters so good and so American that finally only the Orioles were left to separate—perhaps—fact from fiction

People
Fishing
Track & Field
Horse Racing
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

You can't keep a good high jumper down

Four years ago world record holder Valeri Brumel of the U.S.S.R. smashed his right leg in a motorcycle accident, but after six operations he is back in training, has already cleared 6'9‚⅛" and has higher hopes

Valeri Brumel moves with a slow grace. His face is handsome, with smooth, even features and soft blue-green eyes, yet it is brooding and possessed. He jogs around the stadium with a slight limp. He is a wounded champion. It is hard to imagine a defect beneath the dark blue sweat suit, white wool socks and Adidas track shoes. Standing under a portrait of Lenin in the great stadium in Sochi, the Black Sea resort, Brumel still seems very much the world high-jump record holder. Indeed, his record (7'5¾", which he set in 1963) is still unbroken, but there is a tragic flaw. The skin is scarred on his right leg along the lower part of the shin. On the night of Oct. 6, 1965 Valeri Brumel, age 23, high-jump champion of the Soviet Union, Europe and the Olympic Games, was thrown from a motorcycle along the Moscow River embankment.

This is an article from the Oct. 20, 1969 issue Original Layout

Brumel was riding pillion behind a friend, a merited master rider. She skidded driving through an underpass, and as they emerged the motorcycle hit the curb, throwing them both. She was unhurt. Brumel remembers striking the concrete abutment of a lamppost, then, as he recovered consciousness, seeing his white bone. His leg was so badly injured that he recalls, "It seemed as if I carried my foot in my hands to the hospital at midnight."

The operation lasted five hours. His shinbones were pulverized. The surgeon who performed the operation, Dr. Ivan Kucherenko, head of the traumatology department of Moscow's Sklifosovsky Institute, told newsmen who gathered at the hospital: "I cannot guarantee anything. He suffered a severe oblique comminuted fracture of the tibia and femur in the lower part of the shin, aggravated by considerable damage to the soft tissue. As you journalists would say, his foot hung by a thread." Another surgeon, in less precise language, said: "Brumel's leg was a complete mess." There was a threat of amputation, but Dr. Kucherenko saved the leg. Piecing the shattered bones together was like creating a mosaic.

The following morning a close friend was permitted a brief visit. Brumel was exhausted, lost and remorseful. "It turned out badly...very badly," he said. "You know I could have cleared 7'7½". It's a shame I didn't do it. But I will. Remember what I say. In one, two or five years I'll invite you to my first training session."

But the leg did not heal. Brumel developed osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone marrow. Again his leg was threatened with amputation. For months drugs didn't seem to work. Then, slowly, his leg began to mend. He was allowed to stand on crutches. By February 1966, Brumel and his doctors were optimistic. "If everything continues well Valeri could begin practicing within half a year," said Dr. Kucherenko. When the cast was removed X rays showed that the bones had knit, but the new bone growth had not yet hardened. Brumel was buoyant and began preliminary training, lifting 6½-pound dumbbells in his room and swimming regularly in the pool at the Sklifosovsky Institute. Gradually, he was able to take, a few steps without the aid of crutches. "I think I shall be able to resume training by autumn, and the first prize I win in competition will go to Dr. Kucherenko," Brumel told sports-writers.

He began to walk without his crutches. Then he tried to climb stairs on his own. One day in March he walked down the stairs from his room without crutches. As he began to climb back he felt a sharp pain in his leg. Even with crutches he found it difficult to return to bed. He had pushed himself and his leg too quickly and dislocated bones that had not yet completely mended. He had to begin his recovery all over again.

Brumel was transferred to the Moscow Central Institute for Traumatology and Orthopedics where four metallic needles in a special compression device were used to fasten his bones in place. Plans to resume training had to be abandoned. "Of course, I alone am to blame for all this," Brumel explained. "I had succumbed to a kind of hypnosis. Everyone asked me when I would begin jumping again. That's why I was too hasty." By the spring of 1968, after spending nearly two years in bed and on crutches, Brumel was still very much a cripple. His right leg was three centimeters (slightly more than an inch) shorter than his left leg. At this point, there was little talk of training and still less of jumping.

Nonetheless, Brumel had managed to graduate from the Moscow Institute of Physical Culture and was qualified for a career as a trainer or physical education instructor. He was 26, married, with a son. He had a two-room apartment in a new building near the Dynamo Stadium, and a Mercedes 220, a rare luxury for a Soviet citizen. He had become a full member of the Communist Party and could count on a career as an athletic official. Yet, after six operations on his leg, Brumel still dreamed of becoming a champion again. The single-mindedness that had got him the world record had taken hold once more. He visited specialists, sought consultations and solutions. There seemed to be no answer until a sportswriter told Brumel about Gavril Ilizarov, a surgeon from Kurgan in western Siberia, who had developed his own radical method for treating fractures. Dr. Ilizarov rejected plaster casts because he said they interfered with circulation and caused stiffness. Brumel flew to the small city in the Urals and discussed his case with Dr. Ilizarov, who detailed a five-month program to lengthen Brumel's leg and get him back in condition to begin training. Not only was his right leg three centimeters shorter than the left, but his right thigh had become three centimeters thinner from muscle atrophy.

On May 28, 1968 Brumel was operated on by Dr. Ilizarov. He sliced through the shinbone on a diagonal just above the shattered portion. Then clamps were set in place on the bone, forcing the severed shinbones apart at the rate of three-fourths of a millimeter every 24 hours. The rate of movement, however, was so slight that it did not interfere with the bone-knitting process, and after 45 days the pressure had produced the required three centimeters of bone. At the time of the operation, Dr. Ilizarov also used bone grafts to fortify the shattered segments of shinbone. On Oct. 18, nearly five months later, the treatment was complete, and Brumel was able to walk with a slight limp but without crutches.

Then came the slow, often agonizing conditioning process: massage, swimming, running, weight lifting. On Dec. 15, 1968 Brumel invited friends to his first training session since the accident. At the Young Pioneers' Stadium in Moscow he performed gymnastic exercises, did knee bends on his right leg and worked with weights. He walked over to the high-jump pit and looked at the bar, but he did not jump. Dr. Ilizarov had issued strict instructions. Brumel was to work out in the gym, have his leg massaged, run cross-country and swim. "I'll start jumping after I learn to run," he said. When Brumel set his world record he ran 100 meters in 10.6. Now his goal was 12 seconds.

On March 3, 1969, after three months of training (20 days of which were lost when he had the grippe), Brumel made his first jumps since the accident. He jumped 19 times beginning at 5'11" and finally clearing 6'6¾ ". He tried 6'8¾" but missed and gave up for the day. Brumel was elated. So was his coach, Yuri Chistyakov. Brumel could still jump, but he was back to the same level he had started at 10 years earlier when he cleared 6'4¾" in his first all-U.S.S.R. competition. "The treatment has ended. Now the training begins," said Chistyakov, an old friend with whom Brumel trained and competed in the past. Chistyakov, who is 35, has a wonderful relationship with Brumel, who treats him more like an older brother than a coach. It is the kind of handling that Brumel needs badly. Brumel turned to Chistyakov for personal advice when his marriage deteriorated, and he frequently spends weekends with Chistyakov at the family dacha outside Moscow.

In Sochi last April, Brumel was beginning to step up his training, but progress was still slow. His former coach, Vladimir Dyachkov, was in the stadium with a crop of young hopefuls. He had no time for Brumel anymore. When a visiting correspondent asked Dyachkov, "How are Valeri's chances?" the coach replied, "Which Valeri?" There is clearly a feeling of bitter disappointment between the two. For Dyachkov, Brumel was a remarkable phenomenon, a human being capable of seemingly infinite perfection. Dyachkov, who has studied the relationship between muscle development and performance, had developed an elaborate program for Brumel. Brumel was his creation. He achieved his world record by combining speed with strength. In 1960 he could squat with 320 pounds and that year he cleared 7'2‚Öù". In 1962-63 Brumel squatted with 385 pounds and got the world record. Brumel believes that his strength, speed and jumping ability are interdependent. But he is lifting only 330 pounds these days, and it may take him three years to get back to his championship form.

Talking with Brumel in Sochi on his 27th birthday, one got the impression that he was still determined to make a comeback. Yet there was also a new trace of maturity and self-questioning. The young, cocky champion, full of horseplay, had vanished. He contemplated the arduous road back. "The training is going so well it makes me cautious," he said with a smile.

In a suite at the Leningradskaya Hotel, overlooking the Black Sea, Brumel was munching radishes and scallions and sipping white wine, a rare indulgence permitted by Chistyakov for his birthday. Brumel is reticent to discuss specific goals or talk of breaking his own record. Yuri Chistyakov is sympathetic to his plight. He says, "What matters at this stage is not whether he can equal or surpass his previous height. The main thing is psychological therapy so that he feels he is back in the ranks again. After all that he has been through, Valeri must be made to feel that he is capable of being a normal athlete, that he is no longer a cripple." At the right psychological moment, Chistyakov says he will place Brumel in the "iron glove" of training so that he can compete again.

That moment came in Moscow in June. Valeri Brumel competed in a track meet for the first time since his accident. He cleared 6'9‚⅛" to take second place in a trade union track meet. The winning height was 6'9‚Öû".

Chistyakov feels that to compete regularly, Brumel must be able to jump at least 7'1". He obviously expects that Brumel can regain his old form and perhaps even reach his goal of 7'7½". "It's not your age, it's the time you've been engaged in a sport," says Chistyakov.

At this stage, Brumel is still not certain of his own limits and just how well his leg will respond. He takes off from his left leg, and if he can get his right leg back into shape he might jump to a new height. His former coach, Dyachkov, thinks that Brumel's career is finished and that he can never conquer his flawed leg. But others, like Nikolai Ozolin, 63, Europe's first 14-foot pole vaulter, believe that Brumel can have a second career. "Due to his steady disposition and determination he will come back," says Ozolin.

Through his ordeal, Brumel has been backed by the Ail-Union Federation of Sports Societies and the Burevestnik Society, for whose club he competes. He has always won and he wants to win again. Indeed, Brumel's desire to be first is a legend among his friends. Chistyakov recalls a day in 1964, before the Rome Olympics when he, Brumel and the celebrated long jumper Igor Ter-Ovanesyan had a few hours off and were shooting pistols at a target. Brumel was not quite as good as the others, but, stubbornly, he kept on shooting. In the end, he made the best score.

THREE PHOTOSPHOTOBRUMEL POSES WITH HIS MOST RECENT DOCTOR, GAVRIL ILIZAROV, IN RED SQUARE