In Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens late last Friday evening, Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah, who used to host his own sports show on the University of Maryland radio station, sat at trackside amid a knot of athletes and did some impromptu color commentary. He's good enough at it that ABC, NBC and a couple of cable networks have tried to lure him into a blazer of one sherbet hue or another. And he had convincingly reaffirmed his credentials in his principal line of work earlier in the Toronto Star Maple Leaf Games by breaking his world indoor record (5.98) in the 50-yard hurdles with a 5.92 clocking. But what stimulated Nehemiah to do his announcing bit—and about 13,000 spectators to burst into cheers—was the best indoor pole-vaulting competition in history.
When the crossbar stood at 18'8¾", half an inch higher than the world indoor record shared by Konstantin Volkov of the Soviet Union and Thierry Vigneron of France, three Americans were still in the running. Two of them. Dave Volz and Earl Bell, had just cleared 18'6½" to tie Billy Olson's two-week-old U.S. indoor mark. The other vaulter, Olson, a fifth-year senior at Abilene Christian, had passed at that height, hoping to conserve strength for three tries at the world record.
"Now, Volz is strong." said Nehemiah as the Indiana sophomore lined up for his first attempt at the record height. Volz's short, bearish build and the good use he makes of his powerful upper body continually amaze Olson. "His center of gravity is unbelievably low," Olson said. "He pushes off the pole when he's this far [Olson holds his hands a yard apart] below the bar and still goes over. That's impossible. Golly, if I could do that, I'd clear 19'6", no problem." Unfortunately for Volz, who last year set an American junior outdoor record of 18'3¼", the law of gravity eventually caught up with his center of gravity. On all three tries at 18'8¾" he missed badly.
After Volz's first miss, Bell, a former outdoor world-record holder (18'7¼" in 1976), went to the end of the runway. "Look at his left leg," said Nehemiah. "It's almost an inch shorter than the right one." Fellow hurdler Willie Gault of Tennessee craned to see. "Look," said Nehemiah. "You can see that the sole of his left shoe is built up." Gault nodded, as if to say, "I see it now"—that's what a color commentator is supposed to make his audience do. Nehemiah failed to mention, however, that Bell has learned from this defect: Having become familiar with skeletal imbalances, he has been serving as Olson's chiropractor. He even gave Olson, a Pacific Coast Club teammate, an adjustment earlier in the evening. "Earl knows all about being out of whack," says Olson, "and I've got this left hamstring that bothers me a lot, so I have him pop me back in line. He hasn't got a license, but he's good."
February 8, 1982
Bell, 26, and Olson, 23, are amicable rivals who share everything from comparable builds (about 6'2" and 165 pounds) to similar vaulting styles to prematurely receding hairlines. Both come from small cities in the Southwest. "Earl, he scares me," says Olson, who's from Abilene, Texas. "He's just got all kind of potential sittin' in there." Says Bell, who lives in Jonesboro, Ark., "Billy's a typical Texan—which isn't necessarily a compliment. Actually, Billy's a good guy...but different in his ways."
After a short wait to let a mile relay get under way. Bell took his opening attempt at the world record height and scraped the bar just enough to send it trembling off the standards. Encouraged by his narrow failure. Bell decided he would proceed to a greater height—18'10"—for his remaining two jumps. He seemed to have gotten up that high on at least two of his earlier vaults. "This is the damndest place," Bell said. "The standards are too close together and they make the bar look higher than it is, but, historically, we jump well here." Meanwhile, historically, it was Olson's turn at 18'8¾".
Standing behind Nehemiah as Olson applied lighter fluid to secure his grip on the pole, half-miler James Robinson blurted out, "Hey, he's got to break the world record to win." Robinson shook his head. "The world record. Just to win. Damn!" Nehemiah acknowledged the remark and then resumed his commentary: "The pole-vault coach at Maryland told me—and this is natural ability we're speaking of—that Bill Olson is the best vaulter he's ever seen. Look at the arms. You can tell he's got strength, that he's been hitting the weights. And he's fast. He runs a 10.5 hundred meters. He's phenomenal. But the question is, is he the best? We'll soon find out."
Olson was using the same long (16'5"), stiff pole that had propelled him to his American indoor record at the U.S. Olympic Invitational in New Jersey on Jan. 16, and for the first time in four subsequent meets he had enough runway to accommodate his complete—and unusually long—146-foot approach. He also, as always, was wearing his Swiss-made glasses. "They make everything look so sharp I can't jump without them," says Olson, who's nearsighted. "I don't dare wear them when I'm doing anything else because I'm afraid they'll break."
One might assume that spectacles attain a maximum state of peril when perched on the nose of a competing pole vaulter. Think again. In his spare time Olson—without his special specs—likes, for example, to jump 30 feet down from a balcony and onto a vaulting pad in Abilene's Taylor County Coliseum. "It's neat," he says. Also typical of his behavior was his attempt at rope vaulting in September 1980. "It's good exercise, but to be safe you need three or four thick gymnastics pads," says Olson. With the crossbar set at 16½ feet, he had swung out from a rafter, Tarzan-like on a rope, toward the standards. He cleared the bar, but his upper body missed the pads, and he shattered every bone in his left wrist and dislocated his left elbow. His arm was in a cast for six months. On the day it was removed he tried vaulting again. One of the bones still hasn't healed.
With a record at stake, the crowd in Toronto grew quiet enough to hear Olson's two huffs before he charged down the runway. As he rose toward the bar, the silence was absolute. With at least four inches of clearance, he made his deliberate arc over the bar and then let his body go limp as he fell toward the pad. The bar remained motionless. Even before Olson had landed, his hands were clenched in triumph above his head.
"I told you! I told you! He's great!" shouted Nehemiah as the crowd loosed a roar. "Did you see before, when it was at 18'6", Bill looked at the bar and said, 'Cake'?" Olson gave the fans one jubilant lap of the track and went under the stands to phone his parents in Abilene.
Olson has lived his entire life in Abilene, except for the first semester of his freshman year in college, which he spent 200 miles away at Baylor. "I had vaulting problems there," says Olson. "It was a runner's school. When I got there I was jumping 16 feet, but by Christmas break I couldn't even plant a pole. I said, whoa, this is big trouble here."
He transferred to Abilene Christian and became an 18'7" vaulter by 1980. He feels comfortable at the small. Church of Christ-affiliated university and at various times has been a sportswriter for the college newspaper and a morning disc jockey for the campus radio station. "We play your basic kiddie Top 40," he says. "You know [voice lowers, twang melts], 'Hi out there, this is KACU and it's a beautiful 48 degrees in Abilene at 7:45....' "
Olson, who still lives with his parents, almost always calls home right after any meet, regardless of his performance, regardless of the time. But Bill Olson Sr. is accustomed to receiving calls at any hour from odder characters than even pole vaulters. He owns SOS Bail Bond in partnership with a professional wrestler named Don (The Lawman) Sletton. "The Lawman's a real asset in bail bonding." says young Bill, who hopes to join the business someday. "All the crooks know him. All the crooks go to rasslin' matches." Bill Jr.'s part-time work for the firm has allowed him to meet such notables as "Jesus' best friend...he told me he and Jesus eat together all the time."
After Olson told his parents about his record vault, he remembered something. "I have to hang up now," he said to them. "Earl's still jumping. I might have to go higher to win." He hustled back out onto the floor, whereupon Nehemiah called to him. "Bill! How high you going? Nineteen?"
"Nineteen," affirmed Olson.
"Nineteen easy?" asked Nehemiah. No response.
Bell's initial try at 18'10" was so close that the bar didn't wobble off until he was well on his way down, but his last jump was a solid failure. Olson, having finally won the competition, requested a height of 19'¼".
Olson's first and third attempts were decent tries—misses—but his second was truly exceptional. He got over the bar with several inches to spare but was so excited he threw his arms back too hard as he began his descent, thereby causing his chest to thrust forward into the bar, knocking it off. "I could have made 5.78 meters [18'11½"] on that," said Olson. "I know I can jump 5.80 [19'¼"]. Right now I'm thinking 5.85 [19'4¼"]. Tonight was just amazing. People were jumping out of their heads."
"Those guys were killing those heights," said Nehemiah, who the next night in Dallas would knock off another of his own indoor world hurdle reccords—60 yards, which he covered in 6.82, surpassing his old mark by .07. "I don't think the American vaulters will have to take a backseat to the Europeans anymore," said Olson, aware that in 1981 Bell was the only U.S. vaulter ranked in the world's top 10 (he was sixth). "I think," Olson continued, "you have just seen the turn of the tide."