I missed this when it happened – I guess pole vault is not big news these days – but Sergey Bubka’s long-standing world record has finally been broken. The Guardian has an excellent piece documenting Renaud Lavillennie’s feat. But almost of as much interest are some of the tangents taken by the author:
The back-story to Bubka’s records:
Bubka revolutionised the men’s pole vault competition. He was faster, stronger and more athletic that anyone that had gone before him. This allowed him to build up more speed on approach, use a heavier pole that could generate more recoil force, and grip the pole much higher than the average vaulter in order to get more leverage. He perfected a technique, first used by the Swede Kjell Isaksson, which concentrated on driving the pole upwards while rising towards the bar. This allowed Bubka to load the pole with more energy than his rivals and better exploit the recoil action to swing his body up and over the bar. Though less obvious to the untrained eye, Bubka’s model of vaulting was as big a game-changer as Dick Fosbury’s flop in the high jump 20 years before.
And the notion of the single defining moment of optimum performance:
The human body is not a machine. It does not perform in an identical way each time it is put to a task. At some point in your life, in any given action, your body produces an optimum performance. The variations are so minute that for most of us this is a complete irrelevance. For elite athletes, however, striving for records in fields were the margins are literally millimetres, it means everything.
In the 1968 Olympic Games, Bob Beamon jumped 8.90m. It bettered the long jump world record by a frightening 55cm and, when he realised what he had done, Beamon’s muscles succumbed to cataplexy and he collapsed to his knees. After that day in Mexico City he never again came remotely close to his record and it took almost 23 years for anyone else to do so. Clearly, that was Beamon’s moment of optimum performance and he certainly made the most of it.
There’s a lot more, including Bubka’s revolutionary deal with Nike, who paid him $100,000 for each world record, and, most poignantly, the belief that he may have been able to go even higher:
Can we be sure that the 21st February 1993 in Ukraine was his special moment? Watch the old footage and it seems unlikely. Sure, he cleared 6.15m that day but in previous vaults he cleared lower heights with greater ease.
Pause the videos when he reaches the summit of his vault and the amount of daylight between body and bar is enormous – at times enough to comfortably better world records by five or ten centimetres. The shame of it is that we will never know just how high Bubka could have gone.