This winter, like never before, the pole vault has been the glory of the indoor track circuit. In the span of a recent six weeks, seven indoor world records were set: four by Billy Olson, a 27-year-old Texan whose receding hairline and glasses give him more the look of a bookworm than a superb athlete; two by Sergei Bubka, a 22-year-old Ukrainian whose muscled frame and tousled brown hair give him the appearance of an American campus hero, and one by Joe Dial of Norman, Okla., who appears in big meets so infrequently many don't know what he looks like.
When they all met Friday night at the 79th Millrose Games, in a pole vaulters' summit, no one soared to glory. Instead, there was tumult and shouting.
It was such a publicized, pressurized confrontation -- New York tabloids advertised it all week with Pearl Harbor-sized headlines -- that the event could hardly have matched the billing. But who would have expected -- when Olson, the indoor record-holder at 19-5 1/2, met Bubka, the outdoor king at 19-8 1/4, and Dial, the U.S outdoor champion at 19-2 1/4 -- a three-ring circus, so many histrionics, so little sense of history?
Olson said they all succumbed to the "pressure" of the event, "so much media hype." Dial could never find his poles. Bubka blamed his undoing on the "American way of life."
So it is when high-powered Americans and Soviets try summitry: It's a rare occurrence, and who knows quite what will come of it?
But this? Bubka, who had beaten Olson in five head-to-head meetings over the years, failed to clear a height. When Olson and Dial both were given a rare fourth chance to clear their opening height of 18-4 3/4, based on a judge's decision that they were interfered with on their runway approaches, Bubka threatened to withdraw in the middle of the event, charging that international rules had been violated.
"The reason given by the referee to give the fourth attempt to the American athletes sounded more like subterfuge than a real reason," an irate Bubka said later through an interpreter.
Given an extra chance himself, Bubka still failed, prompting him to criticize Madison Square Garden's old board runway as inadequate, the landing pads as "too small" and crowd control around the vault area inept -- photographers and various other onlookers gathered in great numbers along the runway. Bubka declared the whole affair a "circus."
"The main reason about what happened tonight," he said, sitting angrily on the banked curve of the running track, "is the American way of life, the desire to make the most amount of money. Such victories that were provided today for the Americans are not fair and cannot be honorable."
Olson said he felt "sorry for Sergei," but that did not prevent him from taking advantage of his fourth attempt and going on to win at 19-0 1/4, although missing badly on three attempts at yet another record, of 19-5 3/4.
On the third effort, Olson was so tired after being out on the floor 6 1/2 hours he couldn't lift himself off the ground. He ended up running across the mat, declaring, "Dang it," and "Shoot." That's actually what he said the height of his frustration, sounding like an All-American boy from an earlier era.
Other oddities: Frenchman Pierre Quinon, the 1984 Olympic champion, received scant attention, finishing third at 18-9 1/4. Dave Volz of Bloomington, Ind., the runner-up on the basis of more misses, was credited with a Garden record of 19-0 1/4, while Olson was not (a remeasurement for record purposes only gave Olson 19-0).
For a long while, it looked like Olson's training partner, comparative unknown Brad Pursley, might win. Bubka's older brother, Vasili, also in the competition, also sought an extra vault, but officials told him "Nyet."
It could have happened only in New York, the buildup and the letdown.
"I think it was the pressure," said Olson at 1 o'clock Saturday morning when almost everyone had gone home. "I think everybody was feeling it. I know when I was running the runway at the start I was out of control.
"Every time I come to the Millrose Games, I want to do well. But I think it's a case of trying too hard, trying to set a record. You can't try for it. You just have to let it sneak up on you."
And that, as any master vaulter knows, is the secret. Cornelius Warmerdam, 70, the first 15-foot vaulter, who used a bamboo pole, said Friday night from his home in Fresno, Calif., that he didn't "try" for 15 feet but that "all of a sudden it was there. I had reached a plateau of 14-6, 14-7 for two years. After that, everything felt real good."
Warmerdam's indoor record of 15-8 1/2 stood for 17 years before it was broken in 1959 by Don Bragg, who did 15-9 1/2 with a metal pole. It was hailed as a "skyscraping" feat.
Bragg, who lives in New Gretna, N.J., north of Atlantic City, said Friday, "Yesterday was kind of funny. It was the anniversary of my record."
He reminisced, amid all the hoopla of the approaching 20-foot vault. "We just moved from our old house and there was the pole I used," said Bragg. "It was older than a model-T Ford. I can't believe I used it."
Bragg laughed. "When people say, 'Hey, Don, how high'd you go?' I say, 'Let's just say I won the gold medal. Let's just say I had the world's record.' I don't like to say 15-9 1/2."
Today's vaulting heroes ride incredibly flexible fiberglass poles to heights unimagined in Bragg's heyday, to say nothing of Warmerdam's. Recently, the indoor record (although all are unofficial) has inched upward in a vaulting stratosphere: 19-2 3/4 by Olson, 19-3 by Bubka, 19-3 1/4 and 19-3 3/4 by Olson, 19-4 3/4 by Dial, 19-5 by Bubka and 19-5 1/2 by Olson.
The record should fall again as Bubka and Olson are scheduled to meet, starting tonight in Chicago, four more times, concluding Feb. 28 with the USA/Mobil national championships back in the Garden. After the Millrose fiasco, with the extra vaults awarded, Olson lists as one of his objectives some international goodwill so Bubka will not feel that "we're doing things a little funny around here."
Of course, Olson has but one real objective: "I want to jump at the Olympics in 1988. Nothing else really matters that much."
It's a wonder Olson is still at it -- and healthier than he's been in a long time. He grew up in Abilene, Tex., and took up vaulting after his second year in high school. He had been on the golf team "and I was in line to sign up again when the track coach came over and asked me to come out for the team," Olson said.
Word had gotten out: just fooling around over the previous summer, Olson had beaten the best schoolboy vaulter without even practicing. He was a natural -- up to a point.
In 1980, midway in his college career at Abilene Christian, he broke his left wrist in a number of places during a gymnasium exercise. "Two of the bones have never healed," Olson said. "But this year I've begun taping the wrist and that seems to have eliminated the pain caused by the pressure on takeoff."
That's only one reason for Olson's comeback after he thought of quitting last July when he watched Bubka set the outdoor record in Paris. Instead, he learned from Bubka. "He taught me you've got to hold higher to jump higher. I raised my grip on the pole eight inches."
In addition, Olson moved last September from Abilene to Dallas. There, he can be with his girlfriend, who is in dental school. He also was reunited with his vaulting partner, Pursley.
Finally, he has found the weather better for his health. "It's amazing what a difference 180 miles can make," he said. "I haven't had any allergy problems and as a result I've been in better health overall."
Olson has fully recovered from torn ligaments suffered in the 1984 outdoor season, which ruined his bid for the Los Angeles Olympics. He finished seventh and out of the running in the U.S. Olympic trials. "For the last two years, I've been crippled," said Olson.
During that time, he dreamed a few times about a pro golf career -- "but that's my fantasy life." In fact, he shoots mostly in the 90s. "If I had to earn a living on the pro tour, I'd be broke."
But now, life is better. His girlfriend "spends a lot of time buried in the books," and that gives Olson time to work on new strategy with Pursley. Now that he's older, Olson wants "to go slow. You can't try to compete nine months a year. I want to keep healthy. If I have one void, it's the Olympics. It may never be, but that's what I want. I want to get to 1988. I've got a lot of jumps left in me and I can get them out if I play it smart."
A faithful vaulting contingent hopes he does, and part of it stayed late at the Millrose Games to root for him. The few thousand who remained past midnight chanted, "Olson, Olson," then hushed each time as he pondered his approach. Once, at the stroke of midnight, the only sounds were the voice of Bubka relating his woes and Olson's spikes clattering down the runway.
Olson had already won but his fans wanted more, another record. They would have to wait, but maybe not for long. Olson said of his competition with Bubka, "I think there's going to be many, many good battles in the future."