World pole-vault champion Sergei Bubka of the Soviet Union had been clearing the bar by a foot or more throughout last Friday night's Los Angeles Times/United Airlines Indoor Games. As he prepared to try 18'10¼", fellow jumper Greg Woepse, formerly of San Jose State, who has gone as high as 18'1¾" himself, scurried over to the vaulting standards with a hand-held movie camera. "Maybe I can learn something," he said. While Woepse filmed and a cluster of other athletes watched nearby, Bubka, a powerfully built 20-year-old from Kiev, blasted over the bar with at least six inches to spare.
"That guy gets so high in the air it's unbelievable," said high jumper Debbie Brill, one of the onlookers. Sitting on the track next to her, Billy Olson, whose former world indoor record of 19'¼" had been broken twice by Bubka in the last month, winced visibly at the Soviet's margin of clearance. "It's not fair," he said. Another former world indoor record holder, Dan Ripley, just shook his head. "You see him do something like that and you almost want to give up the event," he said.
Each of Bubka's six vaults had been breathtaking, even his three misses. He had launched himself so high on every one that he'd seemed almost out of control, like a rag doll tossed in the air, his arms and legs splaying wildly. All 11,881 spectators at The Forum now understood how he had been able to eclipse Olson's indoor record with a jump of 19'3/4" in Vilnius, U.S.S.R. on Jan. 14 and one of 19'1" in Milan on Feb. 1. They understood how he had won at last summer's World Championships in Helsinki—where he had been a complete unknown. They saw the 5'10", 176-pound Bubka, a strutting, cocky, mustachioed picture of self-confidence as a true Soviet block—as muscled as a wrestler and tremendously strong. At Helsinki, Bubka won by clearing 18'8 ¼" against a 12.3 mph headwind. In Friday's meet he was handling an unusually long (17 feet) and heavy pole, the type U.S. vaulters call a "cannon." For additional leverage and greater riding height, he was holding his top hand an astonishing 16'9½" up the pole; his great strength allows him to control the pole, even with a grip that is a full foot higher than that of other vaulters. "That's the secret of great vaulting," says former world outdoor record holder Earl Bell. "Hold high and carry a big stick."
No wonder, then, that the only competitors still challenging Bubka at 18'10¼" on Friday—Olson and baby-faced Konstantin Volkov of the U.S.S.R., the world's No. 2-ranked vaulter behind Bubka in 1983—were doubting their chances against him. Volkov, who unlike Bubka speaks some English, took to calling his teammate "Superman" in chats with Olson between jumps. Olson, upon hearing that Bubka has run the 100 meters in 10.2 and long-jumped 26'11" (his actual bests are 10.3 and 25'7¼"), allowed that, well, "He's Superman's little kid or something, I guess." As for Bubka's vaulting potential, Olson didn't hedge. "Under ideal conditions," he said later, "he could go 20 feet."
Yet these weren't ideal conditions for Bubka, Volkov or any of the other six Soviet athletes competing in Los Angeles. The group had arrived in L.A. just 18 hours earlier, in the wee hours of Friday morning, after a 24-hour, 7,400-mile journey from Moscow via Montreal and Atlanta. They were beginning a two-week stay in North America that will conclude with their appearance in the USA/Mobil Indoor Championships in New York on Feb. 24. "We are, frankly speaking, very tired," said Vladimir Gheskin, a Soviet journalist-interpreter accompanying the team. The Soviets were also emotionally down: Hardly had they checked into their hotel rooms and turned on their TVs when news came of Yuri Andropov's death. "Of course, everyone is sad because Andropov was a good man, a good leader, a good and clever man," said Gheskin. "But we must compete regardless. We come here to compete."
Late Friday morning Bubka and his teammates tried to walk off their grogginess with a visit to The Forum. What they saw there disturbed them. "We found a wooden track," said Gheskin. "As one of our guys said, 'In Europe we do not see such surfaces. We have Tartan. We do not use wooden tracks for the last 10 or 15 years.' This will cause for us problems tonight. The shoes of our sportsmen are not good for this surface. We ask the meet organizers to find some shoes, please, with spikes."
In his 10 years of pole vaulting, Bubka had never stepped on an elevated wooden runway; until last year's World Championships he had never even competed outside the Soviet Union. But, as he would say later, "With a little Tartan on top, the wood would be very good. It has bounce." Once equipped with spiked shoes, Bubka was ready.
He put on a show not only with his vaulting but also with his warmups. Several times he took himself through complete make-believe jumps while sitting on the infield floor; once he dropped into a handstand and began walking up the runway upside down. "What an athlete," marveled Ripley's coach, Harry Sneider. "He needs a little Clearasil, but that's about all." Olson was startled at the sight of Bubka's 17-foot cannon. "When I saw him with that pole I said 'Whoa! Is he really going to plant that thing?' Then he planted it and went sailing up in the air like a helium balloon."
After Bubka's impressive vault at 18'10¼", Volkov missed badly in his final try at the height. That left Olson, 25, the former Abilene Christian star, who'd stayed alive despite missing five of his seven jumps. "You want to beat Bubka here more than you want a world record," Pacific Coast Club coach Tom Jennings told him. So Olson passed his last try at 18'10¼" and had the bar raised to 5.80 meters—19'¼"—a height two centimeters short of Bubka's existing world indoor record—for his would-be winning vault.
Olson came down the runway in his familiar gallop, looking more like the vaulter who broke the 19-foot barrier indoors last February than the sore-hamstring-plagued vaulter who failed to clear any height at the World Championships. He scraped the bar lightly as he slipped over it, but it stayed up. Olson all but flipped with delight. He had equaled his U.S. indoor record and, more important, had put the pressure on Bubka. His delirious celebration was short-lived, however.
Bubka had the bar moved up to 5.83 meters (19'1½"), a world-record height. Because of the meet's original jumping order, Olson would have to vault first. He decided to switch to a larger pole—one he calls "my big old banana" because it's yellow and noticeably pre-bent—and to raise his grip three inches, from 15'10" to 16'1". "I figured if [Bubka] could hold 16'9", I could at least hold 16'1"," he said later. But when Olson tried it, in his words, "I went all over the place." One place he didn't go was over the bar. Olson had to abort the jump halfway up and ride his pole back down to safety. "I think that 19-footer took a little out of him," said Jennings.
Bubka was quickly back out on the runway for his first attempt at 19'1½". He carefully fingered his grip, then huffed like a bull preparing to charge. Such is his ritual. To the swelling roar of the crowd, he took off down the runway, knees churning high, teeth biting his lower lip. He launched. Again Bubka sailed high, a good four inches clear of the bar. He brushed it gently on his way down, causing a slight wobble. The bar would not have tumbled even if it had been set at 19'5".
Bubka blew kisses to the crowd and waved his hands high. He'd broken the world indoor record for the third time this season and had equaled the world outdoor record set by France's Thierry Vigneron last September in Rome. He'd also put the heat back on Olson.
"It's hard to beat this guy when he holds almost a foot higher than I do," Olson grumbled, realizing he would have to raise the bar again. "Dad gum it. He's amazing."
"You're not exactly chopped liver," noted Jennings, trying to be encouraging.
But Olson's two attempts at 5.85 meters (19'2¼"), while respectable, were unsuccessful. Bubka had won. He had also established himself, in Los Angeles, as the solid gold-medal favorite for this summer's L.A. Olympics. He might have cleared 5.85, too, if he'd tried, but he decided to save himself for the next night's Vitalis/U.S. Olympic Invitational at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J. Remarkably, after a seven-hour red-eye trip by way of Chicago, Bubka was still able to jump 18'8¼" Saturday night and win the event. He appears to be a vaulter like none the world has ever seen.
"Right now, he's just so much better than anyone else," said Olson, who no-heighted Saturday. "We're going to have to go back to the drawing board."
Gheskin was asked to describe Bubka. "Some people make poems," he said. "And some people make films. Bubka vaults because it is the best way for him to explain himself. Even now he does not know what his capabilities are. Nobody knows, really." But everyone's starting to find out.