The 1912 Olympic stadium in Stockholm is made of dark brick gingerbread, with castle towers at one end. At the other end one night early last week, framed in the arch of the marathon gate, stood Sweden's own Patrik Sj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áberg, staring at a high jump bar set at a world-record 7'11¼". The rest of the meet had already concluded, but scarcely a soul among the 20,000 spectators had departed. The scoreboard read LYCKA TILL PATRIK. Good Luck Patrik. The crowd, which in the U.S. would have been hushed and expectant, kept up a rhythmic applause. In Scandinavia, it is the sound of wishes.
As Sj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áberg rocked, gathering himself for the moment, the wishes mounted with demanding urgency. His long hair streaming, Sj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áberg ran at the bar, jumped and cleared it with his body but touched it with his heel, gently dislodging it.
Sj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áberg rolled out of the pit with his hands over his face, as if cringing from mortal error, yet he still had two tries remaining. "It's just that you get only one or two chances a year to jump a world record," he would say. "Out of 100 jumps you have a perfect one only once, and you hope that it comes at a world-record height, that it's not wasted."
His fear was that he had already used his quota. He had won the competition with 7'7¼" (2.32 meters) and then had jumped 7'8½", clearing the bar by at least four inches with the best jump, he felt, of his 22-year-old life. That, of course, means that he has jumped fully eight feet; it's just that the bar didn't happen to be set that high.
July 12, 1987
His second try at the record height was a nearly identical miss. Once more the bar didn't move until he was almost over. Then it descended slowly, as if it were made of balsa, through 20,000 groans.
Sj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áberg put on his sweatshirt and rested. The 6'6¾" jumper was the 1984 Olympic silver medalist, finishing behind Dietmar M‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√ágenburg of West Germany. In February, Sj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áberg set the indoor record of 7'10¾" in Athens, matching the outdoor record which had been held by Igor Paklin of the U.S.S.R. since 1985.
Sj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áberg grew up in G‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áteborg, on Sweden's west coast, escaping the perils of a broken home and a childhood on the streets (he began smoking at age six and still goes through two packs a day) through sports and the guidance of his coach, Viljo Nousiainen. School left him cold. "You are condemned by your teacher after a few weeks," Sj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áberg has said. "Either you belong to the elite or the incorrigibles."
Having been consigned to the latter, he entrusted his future to high jumping. He has developed the dropout's passion for making it big, and flaunting it. Before the meet in Stockholm he remarked that his white Porsche wasn't cutting it. "I've got to get another car. There are too many Porsches in town."
Sj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áberg can sound jaded next to, say, your average American high jumper. "I used to think of little besides jumping," he says. "Now, it's a living."
The casualness of those words was deceiving. Sj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áberg showed that on his third try. He approached the pit with precisely controlled fury. Again, he lightly brushed the bar. When he landed in the pit he leaped up and screamed at the trembling bar not to fall. It obeyed, and he became the first Swede to set an outdoor world record since Anders G‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ürderud, who did so in winning the '76 Olympic steeplechase.
He took a victory lap, running amid ecstatic children. Their bobbing heads created blond rapids about his waist. People flooded the high jump area to stand and gape at the height of the bar, left there in the dusk. Many stretched an arm toward it, to absorb the reality of what they had seen. Few could touch it. "Oh ja," they said.
Sj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áberg sat on the cushion of the pit and lit a cigarette. He grew subdued. "You feel kind of empty," he said. He spoke of his technique, which was good; of the celebration he would conduct, which would be wicked (two days later he lost his license for driving his too-common Porsche 108 mph in a 68-mph zone); and of the burden this record places on him, that of being the favorite at the World Championships in Rome in September. "I don't mind that," he said. "I have the mental strength to live with it." But he was already off in the future, while those who saw his jump were frozen in the moment.
Sj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áberg's jump came during a week-long series of IAAF/Mobil Grand Prix meets in the northern track capitals of Stockholm, Helsinki and Oslo. Performances were not uniformly high because the World Championships are two months away, and peak racing fitness now might not last until then. But one man knows no valleys. Said Aouita of Morocco came to Helsinki's Olympic Stadium on Thursday, two days after Sj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áberg's feat, and ran the second-fastest mile in history.
He got superb pacesetting from Dave Campbell of Canada, who was visibly fighting for speed in the third lap while Aouita was smoothly controlled behind him. The time with a quarter to go was 2:51.47. Aouita needed to close with a 54.8 to break Steve Cram's record of 3:46.32. He surged freely in the back-stretch, his face composed, and with 150 meters to go seemed sure to be in the 3:45 range. Then you saw his teeth.
His grimace is a flag. He was hitting the wall. His head began swaying from side to side, and he ran the last 40 meters with his eyes closed. He finished in 3:46.76, a powerful near-miss.
Afterward, Aouita was all desert absolutist, insisting the record had barely entered his head. "It is not important," he said. "This [world championship] year, only victory counts. I was just thinking of speed work for the 5,000 [the distance he will run in Rome]."
On Saturday, Aouita was in Oslo to run at Bislett Stadium. Cram was there too, scheduled to run the mile, while Aouita was to race at 1,500 meters. This was curious, unless one knows how these things work, and Oslo would become a lesson in how these things work.
Were the two natural rivals, Aouita was asked, going to stay apart all year? Aouita cast his eyes skyward with a resigned shrug. "I don't know," he said, as if it took an act of Allah to make this match, not simply a meeting of minds, and agents. "Everybody has his schedule. Everybody must prepare for Rome in his own way."
Again wobbling with fatigue in the last yards, Aouita won his race in 3:30.69. Cram had no trouble winning the mile, but he labored greatly at the end, finishing in a disappointing time of 3:50.08.
"Obviously," said Cram, "I'm a wonderful 1,200-meter man right now. By the end of the season I hope to make it the whole mile."
Aouita, perhaps wishing he had taken on the world-record holder, raptly studied Cram's splits. "He ran the last lap in over 60!" he said. Aouita clearly thought he would have massacred Cram, yet neither would depart from his daffy, every-body-has-his-own-schedule-so-what-can-a-guy-do acceptance of their not meeting.
The grand Scandinavian tradition deserves better. One was heartened at the end of the week to think of Sj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áberg's record jump in the Stockholm twilight. The milers made Sj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áberg seem, by comparison, a paragon of the amateur spirit. At least he jumped against the best opponents who showed up. At least he knew that chances to do one's true best are rare. It seemed fitting that he squeaked over the bar on his last try. Maybe there is a little justice in Scandinavia.