NEW YORK — There is a moment, at the peak of their jump, when pole vaulters are nearer to God than the rest of us. I’ve always wondered if they say anything special then. Maybe something like, “What the hell am I doing? This is high. OH, GOD! GET ME DOWN!”
I know they’re not in a very religious posture — hanging up there like a soggy noodle. But maybe they say something anyhow. Maybe they have a special connection. I don’t know. I probably never will. Because, like most of you, I have no intention of ever trying it.
Pole vaulting, I mean.
But I have been hearing a lot about it lately, and I decided it was time to address the subject.
“Awww, nooo,” I hear you say. “He’s writing about pole vaulting. Cripes. Gimme the classifieds, Shirley. I don’t need this stuff. Geez-uss. Pole vaulting. Uh-uhhhn. Geez.”
Well. That’s OK. It’s typical. Most people don’t know what the pole vault is about. Let me tell you what the pole vault is about. It’s about half nuts.
It’s about young men charging down a narrow runway, carrying a long fiberglass pole that looks like a drainpipe off the side of your house, and jamming that pole into a little box and hurling their bodies up and over a bar that’s higher than a second floor window and less stable than a California marriage, and dropping to earth, flat on their backs, into a foam pit. If they’re lucky.
And that used to be enough for most people. More than enough. Only now, the pole vault is about something else.
Now it is about a race. A space race. It’s about politics. East versus West. Us against them.
The pole vault.
The pole vault?
You remember Sputnik? You remember Chuck Yeager chasing the sound barrier out in the California desert? Well, now we have a new game of Can-You-Top-This? — thanks to Billy Olson, a good ol’ boy from western Texas, and Serguei Bubka, a good ol’ Ukrainian from the USSR.
In the last few months, Olson and Bubka have kicked around the world indoor pole vault record as if it were a tin can on a country road. Olson sets a new height. Bubka beats it. Olson beats that one. Bubka retaliates. Like track-shoed test pilots, each pushes the outside of the envelope a little farther. And inch by inch the record has climbed.
Until a few days ago, however, this was a long distance affair — Olson here, Bubka there.
Now Bubka has come to Anerica. To compete.
Which is why I hopped a plane to New York City Friday afternoon, because you never know when history is going to fall, or, in the case of the pole vault, rise. They were meeting that night in Madison Square Garden — as part of the Millrose Games — Olson and Bubka and Joe Dial, an Oklahoman who had snuck his own world record in while the other two were catching their breath.
Olson had the most recent mark, 19 feet 5 1/4 inches — Bubka had gone 19-5, Dial 19-4 3/4 — which, to give you an idea, is about as tall as your average highway overpass. Yes. One man had gone that high with just his strength, his speed and his pole. And it wasn’t enough.
“I can go over 20,” said Olson.
“I can go over 20,” said Dial.
“I can do 21-6 ” said Bubka.
The Milrose showdown was the first meeting between all three since this craziness began. The New York crowd was typically fair-minded. They wore
“Rocky IV” T-shirts. They sang “Born in the USA.” Bring out Ivan Drago. Nyet, nyet — nyah, nyah.
The bar was raised to the opening height, 17-8 1/2. The vaulters warmed up, shaking their legs and practice-sprinting down the long red runway, while the rest of the Millrose events — sprints, long jumps, distance races — took place around them.
It is said that all good pole vaulters are a little insane. I believe this, mostly because it is the pole vaulters themselves who say it. Most pole vaulters appreciate a good party, and like to do things like jump off balconies into the swimming pool, just for kicks, and can usually make good animal noises, like coyotes. Or else they’re complete loners with a thing for motorcycles. It’s part of the tradition. Remember, this is a sport that began with men vaulting into piles of sawdust. Now, I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t trust a pile of sawdust to break my fall off the kitchen table, let alone from 12 feet. It takes a certain kind of man to go for that.
The same kind of men who pushed the world’s record from 13 feet back in 1912 to where it is today, who kept discovering new material to make poles out of — first ash, then bamboo, then aluminum, then fiberglass.
People will tell you the pole vault has gone scientific — what with underwater training and wind-tunnel tests and special shoes. Well. Maybe. I still say it’s the only sport where you can be defeated because the airline lost your poles.
Which is what happened to Joe Dial on Friday. He was vaulting well. He was ready to face the Soviet. And there he was, in New York. Unfortunately, his poles went to Oklahoma — thanks to a screw-up with the luggage.
Dial had to borrow a pole from another vaulter — something which is not that uncommon, I am told, although it’s hard to imagine the conversation.
“Hey man, lend me a pole, will ya?”
“Oh, the airlines again. I tell ya man, If I wasn’t a frequent flyer member, I’d just like to kill those people.”
With the strange pole, Dial failed to clear a single height. He was back in his hotel room before the bar reached 19 feet.
Done in by a DC-8.
That left Bubka and Olson as the star attractions. Which was fine with the crowd. Except that there were so many officials and cameramen around the runway that several vault attempts had to be done over, which led to a dispute from the Soviets, which led to a dispute from the Americans, which led to a delay of about 45 minutes in which everyone just stood around and argued.
Bubka, a squat, fullback-type with shaggy brown hair, walked around with his hands on his hips. Olson, a lean, cheeky Texan, threw on a warm-up jacket and took a seat. The crowd yawned.
The pole vault is a slow moving event anyhow. Each time a vaulter clears a height he gets three more attempts. At night meets, the competition often doesn’t end until well after midnight. Some of the biggest world’s records have been performed in front of people who can barely keep their eyes open.
But then, track meets are not exactly first-run events. At one point Friday night, Olson walked out into the tunnel to get some water, just walked out into the hallway, and waited behind some high school kid at the fountain. When he tried to get back to the floor, a uniformed guard stopped him and said he needed a pass.
“But ah’m Billy Olson,” he said, in pure Texan. “Ah’m vaultin.’ “
“I don’t care who you are,” said the guard. “You can’t go in without a pass.”
A vault takes all of six seconds. The trick is to be very fast and very strong and hold the pole — which is around 17 feet long — as far back as you can. When you plant the pole, the energy from your sprint is transferred into it, thus making it bend and lift you toward the crossbar. The faster and stronger your run, the more energy you transfer and the higher you can go.
Serguei Bubka is fast and strong. He holds his pole farther back than anyone vaulting today. “If he were an American he’d be a fullback for the New England Patriots,” said Olson’s coach, Don Hood, who was filming Friday’s events from the arena floor. “The difference between us and Russia is that their best athletes go into track and field. Ours go into football. The only reason Billy Olson is out there is becase he was too slow and too skinny and too weak to make his high school football team.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Olson. But on Friday night, he wouldn’t need words. Actually, all he would need to beat Bubka would be to get over the bar once. The Soviet pulled a “no-height” — which means he failed to clear any of his first three vaults.
“The conditions here are less than satisfactory,” Bubka said through a translator. He went on to single out the runway, the number of cameramen, the crowd behavior and, oh, heck, why not, the entire country.
“If I may say so,” he said, “to be frank, I think the conditions here reflect the American way of life, which is to make the biggest amount of money out of everything. That’s my opinion.”
Those were also his blue jeans back in his hotel room. Part of the American way of life.
So, as you’ve probably guessed, there were no fireworks here Friday night. It was bust city — and it didn’t end until 12:20 a.m. Olson won the competition by clearing 19 feet. He tried three times at a new indoor world record — 19 feet 5 3/4 inches. The first time he made it about halfway up. The second time he smashed into the crossbar. The third time he never even lifted off.
“That’s the sport,” he said afterwards. “Some nights you’re golden, and other nights you can’t hardly clear nothin.’ “
By the time Olson did his post-meet interviews, Dial was asleep. Bubka was entertaining some American athletes — in remarkably good English. The scribes who were fanning the flames of this new us-against-them stuff where busy pointing toward future meetings between Olson, Bubka and Dial.
The pole vault was never meant to be an international issue. But then again, it might work out OK. It is weird enough for anything, even politics.
The vaulters packed up their appartus, shooks hands, and headed off into the night. I never found out whether, at that frozen moment above it all — when they are 19 feet closer to heaven than the rest of us — they ever ask for divine intervention. But if I were Joe Dial, I know what I’d ask for. I’d ask for my poles back.