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Scott Ostler

Vaulting--a Sport That's Getting Outta Sight

February 20, 1986|SCOTT OSTLER

We should be ashamed of ourselves.

The noble sport of pole vaulting has been around since medieval times, when a knight on a charging horse let the tip of his jousting lance dig into the ground and was vaulted over the castle wall, to a smattering of applause.

Most of us have pretty much ignored the event all these years, until now. Suddenly the world is gripped by pole vault hysteria.

Why? Because the competitors have learned the golden rule of getting attention in sports: Hate thy neighbor.

Have we finally begun to appreciate the beauty of the event? The raw courage and sheer balletic grace of the vaulters?

Heck no. We're fired up because the world's top three or four vaulters are so ticked off at one another that there's a chance they might take the rubber tips off their poles and go back to jousting.

As I said, we should be ashamed of ourselves.

In a meet last year, Billy Olson taunted Joe Dial until Dial finally charged Olson and shoved him off the runway.

So far this indoor season, Olson has taken more cheap shots at Dial, Dial has accused Olson of cheating, and Soviet star Sergei Bubka has jumped in, calling Olson a hick-meet vaulter who, if he ever got into a major competition, "wouldn't know which way to go on the runway."

And everyone is accusing meet officials everywhere of cheating.

I admit it: I love this kind of stuff.

When drag racing comes to town, I listen to radio stations that play music I don't like just so I can hear the commercials. From the announcer's tone, you're not sure if this is a drag racing commercial or the broadcast of the last flight of the Hindenburg.


Now, at the risk of sounding like a company shill, I can hardly wait for Friday night's Times/GTE Indoor Games at the Forum.


"It otta be a real good meet," vaulter Joe Dial said. "The airlines keep losin' my poles, everybody's cheatin'. . . . "

Dial, the American outdoor record-holder, is the perfect underdog, a midget of a vaulter at a Spud Webb-ish 5-8 and 145 pounds. Dial is an Oklahoma farm boy, owns 15 acres and three cows in a town called Bowlegs.

He started vaulting when he was 5, has probably spent more hours vaulting than any man alive and will try anything for an edge.

Once, when Joe was stalled at the 11-foot mark, his dad took his pole to a machine shop and had a makeshift, one-foot metal extension fastened to the bottom of the pole. Joe promptly vaulted 12 feet.

Joe once tried vaulting with the wrong end of the pole, which is like batting with the wrong end of a bat. The pole broke.

And once, trying to lighten the pole, he corked the open end and pumped the hollow pole full of helium.

"The butt plug shot off and almost blew a hole through my dad's stomach," Dial said. "He had just moved away from the tip, and that tip blew 50 yards into the street."

Dial, who has an Oklahoma accent thicker than winter pig slop, don't have much use for Olson.

"He was just runnin' me down, tellin' me that I wasn't no good, that all my jumps are bogus, that I was scared to jump against him," Dial said, recounting last year's run-in. "I just had 'er up to my neck."

That's when Dial threatened to skull Olson with a length of broken pole, and did bulldoze the burly Olson clean off the runway.

For Friday's meet, you can feel the tension building, like a pole filled with helium. I can just about guess what will happen . . .

Olson's poles are lost in transit, so he borrows one of Dial's poles, which turns out to be stuffed with buckshot.

The Bubka brothers show up with mysterious poles that glow in the dark and emit a loud hum. After his first run-through, Sergei Bubka warns Dial and Olson to watch out for the oil slick at the end of the runway. Olson warns Bubka that the pole plant-box is old and could crack at any time and swallow a pole.

Olson clears 20 feet, but the officials aren't looking, not believing him or the screaming fans.

So Olson clears 20 again, but the vault is disallowed because he approached the bar from the wrong side.

Sergei Bubka clears 21 feet, but Dial protests that the vault is illegal because Sergei was carried down the runway piggyback by his brother. The officials say they weren't looking.

Olson misses at 22 feet but is given three more tries because, during his 15-minute meditation period at the top of the runway, an unruly fan rustled a popcorn bag.

Olson protests after Dial tapes two poles together and vaults 32 feet. The officials say they had their backs turned just then and didn't see any illegal pole.

The Bubka brothers measure the 32-foot vault with their own Soviet tape measure and declare the bar height to be 16-3 3/4.

After a bench-clearing brawl, all the competitors retire to the athletes' lounge to toast to an event finally coming out of the Dark Ages.

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