When Billy Olson said of the Madison Square Garden pole-vault runway that it was "soft and slow and old and overcrowded and weird," he made that red plywood ramp a metaphor not only for his event, but for the whole staging of the 1986 Wanamaker Millrose Games.
Officials at this most history-laden indoor meet ended up counting misses in the vault as well as laps in the 3,000 meters and hours in the women high jumpers' day, with scant regard for rules or reality, or civility. "I guess," said Olson, after he had won, with 19'¼', on fewer misses than Dave Volz, "you have to consider it a tainted competition."
Olson's heralded first meeting with the other two raisers of the world indoor vault record this season, Oklahoma's Joe Dial (19'4¾") and the U.S.S.R.'s Sergei Bubka (19'5"), was compromised from the start by that scarred, warped approach—and by the Valentine's Day crowd that had somehow obtained infield credentials and massed along the runway.
Through this delightful company the vaulters had to sprint, carrying 16½ feet of pole, aiming for the smallest pit on the indoor circuit. Bubka, 22, was aghast. "The wood surface is unacceptable," he said. "And the mats [the pit] are too small. I could be seriously hurt."
February 24, 1986
For years Olson has called the Garden's vaulting setup unsafe, so this time Millrose meet director Howard Schmertz beefed up the pit—by grabbing that of the women's high jump. But that meant the women could not jump until the men were finished, which turned out to be after midnight. "You see how important we are," said Canada's Debbie Brill. "Of course, this is first of all a show." She was a trouper, going on to clear a winning 6'4" at 1:06 a.m., with maybe 150 people left in the place.
Stolen padding or not, Bubka disliked the pit. He took repeated warmup runs to learn the dips and dead spots of the approach. Even so, the early vaulting was terrible, with Olson, Bubka and Dial all missing badly at their opening height of 18'4¾". "Everybody felt the pressure of the best all being together," said Olson. "I was out of control at the start."
Dial had the best excuse. TWA had shipped his poles to St. Louis. He borrowed one from Dave Kenworthy but never got the hang of it. He missed again. "But," said Dial, "some photographer stuck his hand in front of me during the run." Dial complained of interference and was given another attempt. Then, when Olson was driving at the box on his second attempt, a man backed into his path. "A lady grabbed him or I would have hit him," said Olson. He missed the man and the vault. But Olson, too, was granted a second second jump.
Whereupon Bubka, usually unflappable, could take no more. He announced he was withdrawing from the competition. These free vaults seemed to him a transparent strategy—he called it "subterfuge"—by which the officials were insuring that the name vaulters made it to the higher heights. He pointed out that his older brother, Vasiliy, 25, who has cleared 19'2¼", got no relief for interference after he missed at 18'4¾", when "a fat photographer" fired a flashgun in his eyes on his takeoff.
Bubka was blunt. He simply cited the international rule. "Only three tries for everybody. Not four. This is so silly. It's a circus, not a track meet."
"The Athletics Congress rules in effect in this country," meet referee Pat Rico explained to Bubka, "are that if you are interfered with, it becomes a non-jump. If you feel you've been interfered with, you can get another jump."
For a while, Bubka held firm. He took off his shoes and put on his sweats and walked around while various proposals were put to him. Frank Shorter, on the floor working for NBC, listened in. "He sounds like a damn good negotiator to me," Shorter said. "He switches from calm to indignant and back to calm very impressively. And I happen to think he's right. The officials are too concerned about putting on a good show."
That seemed confirmed when Bubka came back down the runway with an expression of weary forbearance. He would resume vaulting at 18'9¼". Because he had missed twice at 18'4¾", he would have one try left, right?
"No," said Shorter. "Two. You should have seen the looks when they announced that one."
Rico, at the urging of Schmertz, had canceled Bubka's second miss at 18'4¾".
It did no good. Bubka missed twice at 18'9¼" and was out. Olson, who had made 18'4¾" on his fourth try, cleared 19'¼" on his first. Volz, vaulting with riveting determination, raised his lifetime best to 19'¼" on his second try. Neither could go higher, Volz because of a cramp in his calf, Olson because of raw exhaustion. The vault had taken more than five hours and had diverted too much attention from some fine track.
Mark McKoy of Canada shot through the 60-yard hurdles in 6.93. His countryman Ben Johnson won the flat 60 in 6.04, breaking Houston McTear's meet record of 6.09.
Ireland swept the mile, with Marcus O'Sullivan and Eamonn Coghlan providing the race of the meet. O'Sullivan took the lead with two laps to go. Coghlan, 33, trying for his seventh straight Wanamaker mile victory, strained a yard back through an emotional last lap. But O'Sullivan held on to win in 3:56.05, to Coghlan's 3:56.34.
The chaos of the vault spread to the rest of the meet. The 3,000-meter runners were sent a lap too far. "They held up the two-to-go card twice," said Doug Padilla, who dutifully struggled through the extra 160 yards to win. "Of course we all knew it was too far," he said, "but what are you going to do? The officials are embarrassed as it is."
The athletes shared some of that sensation. "I'm frustrated that Sergei believes that U.S. indoor meets are more joke than sport," Olson said later. Bubka's 19'¾" win in Sunday's Bally Invitational outside Chicago—without Olson and Dial—may or may not have changed the Russian's mind. Still, Olson lamented the Millrose fiasco. "This is the first time I've ever beaten him [in five tries]. I hate to do it when he no-heighted. But if I had no-heighted, it would have been worse."
Olson sat there and considered, struggling to put the evening in proportion. "Crud, I won," he said finally.