The bar was lifted to its new height, and 5,000 spectators began to stamp their feet in the Anoeta Sports Palace in San Sebastiàn, Spain. Sergei Bubka, the husky Ukrainian, raised his pole and began to trot down the runway, slowly at first, then faster. The 5,000 began to clap. Bubka exploded into a mighty sprint, and the 5,000 began to yell. He reached the pit, planted the pole, lifted himself and seemed coiled near the end of the perilously bent shaft. As the pole straightened, he rose upward as if he were riding the tidal wave of sound, and then he flew across the bar and fell to the cushions below.
A pole vaulter had cleared 20 feet for the first time. An elated Bubka said later: "The crowd made all the difference. They were fantastic. This is my special gift to the people of the United States and I dedicate this record to them."
The feat took place last Friday night in a coastal city in the Basque region of Spain, and the notion of breaking 20 feet did not whip up the crowd as much as the fact that Bubka, 27, was about to break a world record for the 22nd time in his dazzling career. To the vast majority of people on this planet, meters are the measure, and Bubka broke the last historic metric barrier when he cleared 6.0 meters (19'8¼") in 1985. But Americans have long been hooked on the idea of their own round-numbered records as the standards for track-and-field greatness: the four-minute mile, the eight-foot high jump, the 30-foot long jump, the 60-foot triple jump, etc. Bubka's breaking the 20-foot barrier made the front page of The New York Times, but European newspapers dealt with that vault as just another world record: this one at 6.10 meters, which edged Bubka three quarters of an inch past his last record of 6.08 meters (19'11¼"), which he set on Feb. 9 at Volgograd in the Soviet Union. (For the record about Bubka's records: The 6.10-meter vault is the official International Amateur Athletic Federation indoor world record, which is different from the outdoor world record of 6.06 meters—19'10½"—set by Bubka in 1988.)
Nevertheless, in the world of pole vaulting, round-numbered footage has always carried its own special mystique. Perhaps this is because Americans dominated the event for a full half century, from 1912—when the IAAF began keeping official world records and credited Robert Gardner as the first person to soar over 13 feet (3.98 meters)—until 1970. In between came the legendary Cornelius Warmerdam, who electrified track-and-field fans in 1940 when, using a stiff bamboo pole, he broke the 15-foot barrier—a seemingly superhuman feat back then. Warmerdam subsequently cleared 15 feet 42 more times before retiring in 1944, and nobody else reached that height until 1951. It wasn't until 1962 that John Uelses of the United States cleared the 16-foot mark, and the next year his countryman John Pennel broke the 17-foot barrier.
In the current age of the springing fiberglass pole, the marks have fallen more quickly, but no one has dominated the sport quite like Warmerdam—until Sergei Bubka. Born in the bleak coal-mining town of Voroshilovgrad in the Ukraine, the son of a Red Army sergeant, Bubka was a natural athlete (10.2 in the 100-meter dash, nearly 26 feet in the long jump) who was lucky enough to come in contact with Vitaly Petrov, a pole vaulter and coach. Petrov taught him all he knew and Bubka used what he learned to become a phenomenon. In 1983, 19 and unknown, he turned up at the World Championships in Helsinki and won with a vault of 18'8¼". The following summer he set a world record of 19'2¼", and he has held the mark with only the briefest of interruptions ever since. He has added centimeter after centimeter—or inch after inch—to the world record, collecting with each improvement a bonus from Soviet sports authorities as well as far larger fees from meet promoters and equipment sponsors. Tom Jennings, the manager of the Pacific Coast Club who has acted on occasion as an agent for Bubka in the U.S., says, "Sergei learned to slice the bacon very thin in order to keep his paydays coming steadily. He understands very well the capitalistic system as it functions for him in the West."
The week before Bubka performed in San Sebastiàn, the World Indoor Championships were held in Seville, Spain. Bubka required only two vaults to win the event—at 19'8¼". He then ordered the bar raised to the magic 20-foot mark. It was after 9 p.m., and the rest of the meet was over. He made three attempts, all failed, and a few cynics from the press and the track-and-field world decided that he had purposely missed because he would get more money at another meet. Another theory had it that he missed in Seville because he was performing as an official member of the Soviet team at those world championships and, as such, he was required by the team to wear Adidas emblems on his uniform. His personal endorsement sponsor is Nike. Others, such as Jennings, who was at the meet in Seville, said that Bubka's efforts were legitimate because breaking 20 feet in the fish-bowl of a world championship would be worth a lot of money for him.
Whatever the reason, history had to wait until San Sebastiàn, a highly respected meet that always attracts a powerful field. This year the meet was awash in big money and big publicity due to heightened interest engendered by the upcoming 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Track sources said that Bubka, a 1988 Olympic gold medalist, received between $25,000 and $35,000 for appearing in San Sebastiàn and as much as $50,000 more for breaking the record.
Big payday or not, he basically made it look effortless. He jumped but three times all night—once at 5.71 meters (18'8¾") to warm up, once at 5.91 (19'4¾") meters to guarantee him a tie for first place and once at 6.10. Bubka actually sounded unimpressed with his historic achievement. "My jump was imperfect, my run-in was too short and my hands were too far back at takeoff," he said. "When I manage to iron out these faults, I am sure I can improve."
Improve? The idea is scary. Earl Bell of the U.S., a bronze medalist at the Los Angeles Olympics, who has known Bubka since 1984, chuckles at the idea: "He is so good now, so completely in control that he is doing things the rest of us mere humans only do in our dreams. No one but Warmerdam ever came close."