Whenever the Soviet Union dispatches a track team to this country, there is concern among fans that the Russians might stock their squad, as they have been known to do, with second stringers. But to organizers of last week's U.S.-U.S.S.R. dual meet in Berkeley, Calif. the only concern was that the Soviet coaches might for some reason leave Vladimir Ilyich Yashchenko, their 19-year-old high-jumping sensation, at home. Yashchenko holds the world indoor record of 7'8½" and the world outdoor mark of a fraction over 7'8" (2.34 meters) and he has become one of the biggest gate attractions in track and field. There was a time when even the Wright Brothers would have been happy to clear 7'8".
Yashchenko made it to Berkeley, and while he didn't make it to 7'8", few minded. In his one previous trip to the U.S. a year ago, as an unknown member of the Russian junior team competing in Richmond, he had set a world record of 7'7¾" before only a handful of witnesses. By contrast, when Yashchenko strode onto the field on the second day of the two-day meet in Berkeley, a capacity crowd of 22,000 and a national TV audience were looking on. He proceeded to win the high jump, beating Fairleigh Dickinson's Franklin Jacobs on the basis of fewer misses, after both had cleared 7'5½" and failed at 7'7".
Yashchenko's win did not save the Russians, however. For only the third time in 16 dual meets between the two countries, and the first time since 1969, the U.S. beat the U.S.S.R., 190-177, in combined men's and women's scoring. The American men won handily enough, 119-102, but then they usually do; it was their 11th win in the series. What sewed up the victory was the fact that the U.S. women, who have won only once in the 16 meets, fell by just four points, 75-71. And at this meet few of the Russians could have been considered second stringers.
The American men tended to dominate the running events, the Soviet men the field events. The U.S. women excelled in the jumps and especially the sprints, in the latter thanks largely to UCLA's Evelyn Ashford, who won both the 100-and 200-meter dashes. And while the Russian women generally dominated distance races and weight events, Maren Seidler became the first American woman since 1959 to break up the Russians' one-two stranglehold on the shotput. Seidler, who at the end of last year became the only American woman to better 60 feet, finished second with a throw of 59'9¾". In the 100-meter hurdles Deby LaPlante set an American record of 13.13, only to lose to the U.S.S.R.'s Tatyana Anisimova, the 1976 Olympic silver medalist (12.96), and Natalya Lebedyeva, the Montreal bronze medalist (12.98).
July 16, 1978
The crowd at the University of California's Edwards Stadium greeted each American victory with a thunderous ovation, and many of the winners responded with jubilant victory laps. Yet despite the clear temptation to celebrate the American showing as a harbinger of things to come in 1980, the truth is that last weekend's meet produced not a single performance by either side that might reasonably be expected to earn a gold medal in Moscow.
Take the men's 5,000-meter run. Marty Liquori and Matt Centrowitz sprinted away from the Soviets with a lap to go and finished one-two, with the identical time of 13:53.4, a whopping 45 seconds off Henry Rono's world record. Still, Liquori and runner-up Centrowitz took a victory lap to a standing ovation. "In Europe we probably would have been booed for the slow pace," said Liquori, who had run a 13:16.2, 1.1 off his American record, at Stockholm three days earlier.
But there was excitement just the same, a case in point being the men's 400-meter relay, Friday's final event. Going into that five-point, winner-take-all race, the U.S. trailed the U.S.S.R. 88-85. There was particular drama for the crowd because for the Americans the second leg was being run by former Cal standout Eddie Hart, a hometown favorite and one of the U.S. Olympians who didn't get to compete in the 100 at Munich because they were misinformed about the starting times of their quarterfinal heats. Hart retired after that fiasco and now, nearly six years later, was making a comeback. And running anchor for the Russians was Valery Borzov, who won the 100-and 200-meter dashes in '72.
The Americans got themselves into a hole in the relay with an Alphonse-and-Gaston baton-passing routine. First, lead-off man Don Coleman made a poor pass to Hart. Then Hart ran a leg that, as he said afterward, pleased him greatly. It also, apparently, impressed Clancy Edwards, the year's sprint sensation, who was to receive the baton from Hart. Edwards got so caught up watching Hart that he neglected to start running, and Hart ran past him. By the time Edwards got in gear and took the baton, he was 10 meters behind. He made up half of that before passing to Steve Riddick, who had earlier upset him to win the 100-meter dash by .02 of a second in 10.37. Riddick made up the remaining five meters, blowing by Borzov and raising his arms in victory as he broke the tape in a meet record 39.14. "I got my stuff going before Borzov got his going." said Riddick. "There was nothing he could do about it. The fact that it was Borzov don't mean nothing."
For Riddick, later named the meet's outstanding American male, it was a welcome return to the limelight. In the 1977 indoor season he won 15 of 16 races, but little has been heard from him lately. At the AAU meet in Los Angeles this June he finished fourth in the 100 meters and qualified for the U.S. team that faced the Russians last weekend only because two of the three finishers ahead of him were not Americans. "This is the last race on TV in the States and I really came to run here," said Riddick. "I can't run every weekend like younger guys. I'm going to be 27 soon. I try to preserve myself. I have to be careful about aging. I really want to run in the Olympics in the U.S., in Los Angeles in 1984." Here was a fellow looking forward not just to Moscow, but right past it.
If Berkeley didn't produce Olympic-caliber clockings, it did showcase a couple of individual matchups one might anticipate at Moscow. On Friday there was the triple jump with America's James Butts, the silver medalist in Montreal, going against Anatoly Piskulin, who was ranked second in the world last year.
The triple jump—or the hop, step and jump, as it was once known—could turn out to be a glamour event in Moscow. In addition to Butts, the U.S. has three other world-class triple jumpers—Ron Livers, Milan Tiff and Willie Banks. The current world-record holder at 58'8¼" is a Brazilian, Jo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Oliveira. There is also a certain triple jumper in Russia who didn't make the trip to Berkeley. He is Victor Saneyev, and in 1980 he will be competing on his home ground for his fourth consecutive gold medal. In Montreal he edged Butts—who had taken the lead—by 11 centimeters on the fifth of his six attempts. "I had the Gold in my pocket," says Butts. "I don't know where Saneyev found the strength. He came down the runway like a madman. Even I had to applaud."
Butts' Silver in 1976 was America's first medal of any kind in the triple jump in 48 years. The 28-year-old UCLA graduate supports his mother and sister as a security agent for a Los Angeles department store. When he trained for the 1976 Olympics, he had to begin his workouts at 5 a.m. because he held two jobs that tied him up from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. Butts competes for Athletes in Action. "I'm jumping for the glory of God," he says. "He's given me a gift, and I'm out there in good will to bring the name of Jesus Christ to those who don't know it." As they did last year, his teammates last week again voted him captain of the U.S. national team.
Butts says he likes to compete in the triple jump because it gives him the sensation of flying. As it happens, it probably was flying that did him in last weekend. He came to Berkeley from Italy via Frankfurt, where he missed a plane connection which stranded him in Germany for a full day. He then flew 11 hours to L.A. and. hopping, stepping and jumping his way to Berkeley, arrived less than 24 hours before his competition. A week before, he had broken his American record with a jump of 56'6¾" at Helsinki, and he was undefeated in 13 outdoor meets in 1978, but in Berkeley the best he could get out of his travel-weary legs was 54'8¾". Piskulin, a diminutive 25-year-old with a receding hairline and the demeanor of a bank clerk, won with a jump of 55'3¾".
Long after the competition had ended Butts was asked if he had studied Piskulin's style. "I watch nothing Piskulin does," he said. "He doesn't inspire me. The man that inspires me is Saneyev." Then, lowering his voice to a theatrical hush. Butts revealed his fantasy about the 1980 Olympics. "It will be just the two of us, Saneyev and me, all alone in the sun. High knees. He'll make his jump and from the Russians will come a loud moan, Oooohhhhhhh. Then I'll peel my sweats off, charge down the runway and throw a 56, a 57 and a 58 at him. We'll see if he can deal. If he can, I'll just give him back-to-back aces. Their people will be booing and sobbing, but that will just turn me on. It'll be like the days of old—two gladiators with no second place. Only one guy walks out. I'm the heir apparent, and to get the crown I'm going to have to kill the king. I'm going to have to do it on his home ground, but that's O.K. with me."
For a while last winter Franklin Jacobs thought he was the king of his event. In late January he set an indoor world record of 7'7¼", breaking the record of Greg Joy of Canada by a quarter of an inch. "I was sure then I was going to be the first man to reach 7'8"," he says. Yashchenko beat him to it, eclipsing Jacobs' indoor mark in the bargain, by clearing 7'8½" in Milan in March. There was a chance that Jacobs and Yashchenko would meet in Milan just three days later, but Yashchenko withdrew from the meet. Italian newspapers reported that Yashchenko had celebrated too long and too hard, and that emboldened by drink, he had told off a Soviet team official. However, in Berkeley Yashchenko did not fit the party-boy image. In contrast to the talkative, vibrant Jacobs, Yashchenko appeared shy and retiring.
On the field the two high jumpers presented just as great a contrast: Jacobs wiry, 5'8" and black, Yashchenko, a gangly 6'4", with wavy blond hair. The Ukranian-born Yashchenko is a straddler with near classic form, Jacobs a flopper with a style all his own. And while Jacobs more or less races at the bar and explodes over it, Yashchenko approaches it tentatively, as if trying to take it by surprise. Even his last few strides are little more than a lope.
Yashchenko blamed the approach area for his failure to go higher. In Berkeley jumpers start on the grass and get the surer footing of Tartan only a few feet from the bar. To make matters worse for Yashchenko, there was limited room in the area from which he started his approach, almost directly to the side of the left upright. "The runway is too short here," he said. "There was not enough room for me to run. I could only take four steps, half as many as usual." He was so uncomfortable on his second attempt at 7'7" that he veered away from the bar at the last minute to avoid taking a jump. Unfortunately, his body crossed the plane of the bar, and he was charged with an attempt without ever leaving the ground.
At an impromptu press conference after the meet, Yashchenko denied he had celebrated to excess following his Milan record. "I am very concerned and disappointed about the fact that the local newspapers have spread rumors about me that there was some drinking," he scolded. "People who write this about Russians should take off their glasses or look through them with sober eyes."
How Yashchenko celebrates his triumphs is, of course, of some concern. After all, he has broken three world records in barely a year and now has beaten Franklin Jacobs before a big American crowd in Berkeley. It seems fair to expect that there will be even more occasions to whoop it up in the future.