The pole-vault crossbar was orange and stood out sharply against the dark recesses of the Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey's Meadowlands, where the Vitalis/U.S. Olympic Invitational track meet was nearing a restful conclusion on Saturday night.
Billy Olson held his yellow pole vertically in the box and gazed reflectively upward. A vaulter does this before a new height to guess the point where his body will be flung the highest. Olson's pole was 16½ feet long. Above its top gaped three feet of velvety air before the eye reached the bar, glowing there at 19'5½", half an inch higher than the new world indoor best established by the Soviet Union's Sergei Bubka in Moscow several hours earlier in the day.
Olson returned to the far end of the runway and readied himself. He gripped the pole one inch below its top, lifted it and began to run. A few shouts of encouragement broke the formal hush. "It all goes awfully fast," Olson would say, meaning that once committed to this headlong sprint and catapult, he has to ride it out. "It's not a crapshoot by any means. But there is a luck factor."
Fortune didn't seem to be riding with him on this attempt. His steps brought him a little too close to the pit, so his plant and take-off were not what he wanted. "I got way under the bar," he said later. From this position, when the pole straightened it would fire him upward. And what goes straight up must come down the same way. Olson felt he didn't have the forward momentum to get past the bar, even if he did get above it. "It was my worst jump, technically, of the night," he said. "And I didn't get the big pop off the top of the pole that I usually do."
Nevertheless, Olson's legs and hips rose above the bar, and he seemed to hang there, passing into that zone of slow motion where everything dramatic happens. He did come down on the bar, touching it with his arm, bouncing it, perhaps touching it a second time, then falling, whumping into the safety of the pit, where he lay watching the bar tremble. "I was dazed," he later admitted. "I honestly expected the bar to fall."
But it stayed, wobbling on and on while the crowd shrieked in joyful disbelief. Even after Olson had sprung from the pit and raced half a victory lap, and after he had come to himself with the sharp thought, "Whoa, fella, I'm not done," and even after he was mobbed and interviewed on the infield, the bar kept vibrating.
It might be there yet if Olson hadn't taken a couple of unsuccessful shots at 19'8½", ¼" above Bubka's outdoor world record. It is still there in the imagination, because it's a fine symbol for the state of the pole vault this year: vibrant and impossibly high. Olson's clearance was the seventh time the world best has been raised since Dec. 28. He began the climb in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, breaking the mark of 19'2¼" set by Thierry Vigneron on March 4, 1984 with a leap of 19'2¾". Bubka went to 19'3" in Osaka, Japan. Olson regained the lead in Los Angeles with a jump of 19'3½" and improved it in Albuquerque to 19'3¾". On Feb. 1 Joe Dial, passing up the chance for a head-on confrontation with Olson in Dallas, made 19'4¾" in a minor meet in Columbia, Mo., and Bubka let him enjoy that for a week before his 19'5".
Olson had learned about that height the morning of the Olympic meet. "Earl Bell [a fellow vaulter] and I were in our hotel room and happened to hear about it on TV," he said. "So I had all day to think about it."
He also had time to dwell upon his own recent misfortunes. At meets in Toronto and Dallas a week earlier he had failed to clear a height. "I live in Dallas," Olson said. "I'd bought 60 tickets to that meet for friends and family and then gone and flopped. I think what happened was I got to trying too hard." He had a talk with SMU coach Ted McLaughlin, who made him face the simple, old, hard truths of sport. "He said I just had to let it happen, not force it. And to cut down on my outside worries." Those included endless speaking engagements and generous hours with reporters.
"He had to move out of the promotion business and back into the achievement business," said Tom Jennings, Olson's Pacific Coast Club coach.
Olson is 27 and has been pole-vaulting for 11 years. "It's just the thing I was put here to do," he said. He has set indoor bests 11 times since 1982. He candidly gives full credit to Bubka for revolutionizing the event. "Sergei made us all change our outlook on how high to hold on the pole. We used to feel that if you held above 15'6" or so, you took some awful chances. You ran poorer. You couldn't control the plant, so you were more liable to get hung up there 17 feet high and come down on the hard runway or box. Then Sergei came along and he was holding 16'6", 16'10", and he was in control. He's consistent. He seldom if ever gets beat head-to-head. Well, I saw if I was going to continue, I couldn't spot him a foot on how high I hold the pole."
When Olson moved up his grip, he raised his clearances as well. "Without Bubka," he says simply, "I probably wouldn't be going this high. I know I can go four or five inches higher right now. And 20 feet just isn't that far away."
Another difference these days is that Olson is healthy. For three years, he insists, the only things that kept him down were injuries, most seriously the three stress fractures and ligament damage he suffered in 1984. But now he is well, and part of this remarkable, companionable climb to the heavens. "Be nice to get Bubka over here during the indoor season," said Olson. "Be nice to get Dial to a meet where you can see him."
The three are expected to meet this week at the Millrose Games in Madison Square Garden and there is a possibility of a rematch on Feb. 28—if not earlier—in the national indoor championships. Together, they surely will inspire each other more than on these solitary flights. "Twenty feet is maybe unlikely during indoors," Olson said. "But I'll be surprised if we don't get to 19'8" this year.
"There is more to come," he said, and described himself as having the perfect set of emotions for his event. "I'm keyed up. I'm high."