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Mike Downey

Call Them Both 'Your Highness'

February 12, 1986|Mike Downey

The Russian and his poles are coming.

His name is Sergei Bubka, and he and an American, Billy Olson, are about to have the ultimate summit meetings.

They will meet in mid-air, close to 20 feet high.

The world's greatest pole vaulters will hit the pits Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York. Two days later, they will compete in Chicago, where Bubka probably will ask to meet the famous vaulter Payton.

The next week, Bubka and Olson will hop over to Los Angeles and San Diego for two more meetings in high society.

Since Christmas, these two guys have been breaking the indoor vault barrier about once a week. Bubka just went 19 feet 5 inches last Saturday in Moscow, only to have Olson go 19-5 1/2 a few hours later in New Jersey. Sort of an "anything you can do" kind of thing.

Now they want to take you higher. Stretch the boundaries of your imagination.

Next time you drive your car through a tunnel or under an overpass that lists its ceiling clearance at 14 or 16 feet, look up. Then picture Bubka or Olson 19 1/2 feet above the pavement.

Their attack on the world record has brought new attention to pole vaulting. Vaulters are hot right now. Somebody probably will propose a National Vault Assn., with franchises in 16 cities.

How far and high they have come. It was only about three Olympics ago that 18 feet was a feat. Now, the boys are bounding toward 20.

Fiberglass poles made the difference. Between 1940 and 1962, the world record rose only from 15 feet to 16. But that was because athletes were using something that resembled Opie Taylor's fishing pole. With fiberglass, the record hit 18 feet by 1970.

I never understood why anybody wanted to be a pole vaulter. If you were fast, you became a runner. If you were strong, you became a thrower. If you could jump, you became a hurdler or high jumper. But what did you have to be to become a pole vaulter?

"Brave or crazy," I once told a friend.

"Brave and crazy," he said back.

His name was Jan Johnson, and we went to high school together. Four years later, he took the bronze at Munich.

Jan ran cross-country in school, so I knew he could run far. He also entered 100-yard dashes and relays at track meets, so I knew he could run fast. What I didn't know was how--or why--he had decided to become one of the world's great pole vaulters.

One day I went to his house. It was on a spread of farm land, about 40 acres, as I recall, near Sauk Village, Ill., and out back Jan had assembled a makeshift pole-vault pit. There was a shaky stand with bar, a gulch of sawdust and a runway surfaced with an old conveyor belt discarded by a nearby factory.

Jan could not explain his interest in vaulting. He just took a fancy to it. For years he was the finest scholastic vaulter in the state, setting a record a fraction higher than 15 feet, and a couple of years later his younger brother, Tim, cleared 16-7 indoors.

When the Americans got to the Munich Olympics in 1972, they were expected to win the pole vault, because they always had. But, because of a technicality, their poles were judged illegal. Since there was no time to order new ones from home, they were forced to borrow unfamiliar, much shorter poles from teammates who were entered in the decathlon.

Bob Seagren placed second, Johnson third. Strong finishes both, but it was the first time the United States had not won the gold in the Olympic vault.

Seagren went on to do toothpaste ads and the TV show "Soap," I think. I'm not really sure what Jan did. But pole vaulters rarely went on to long-lasting fame. I did know that the Rev. Bob Richards had once been an outstanding pole vaulter, because he kept reminding us of that in Wheaties commercials. I'm not sure, but I believe Rev. Bob vaulted six feet in the year 1896.

No other pole vaulters have become household words, to my knowledge. None of the successful ones has had any cool nicknames or interesting haircuts. None of them has thrown any tantrums at umpires or judges because, in this sport, the bar either stays on or falls off.

Full-contact pole vaulting might make the sport more appealing. Maybe if Bubka and Olson ran to the pit together, sprinting to see who could plant his pole first, then dueling in mid-air, they could land a network TV gig.

Until then, we will have to be satisfied with watching a couple of brave and crazy guys scaling new heights the next couple of weeks. Two men who represent everything that is grace and beauty in sport.

If you get a chance to see any of the Bubka-Olson duels, by all means do so. You'll believe a man can fly.

I can't imagine how they could make pole vaulting any more interesting than this.

Electrified bars, maybe.

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