Officially, the meet started at 7. But with the pole vault being the glamor event, and fans anticipating a long, deliberate competition among Sergei Bubka, Billy Olson and Joe Dial -- one that might well last until midnight -- it didn't seem terribly important to get to the TAC/USA/Mobil indoor championships on Friday night until, say, 9.

Unfortunately for the fashionably late arrivals, by 9 Olson was gone, Dial was gone, and the only vaulters left in the most celebrated event of the indoor track season were a couple of Frenchmen and a couple of Bubkas, Sergei and his older brother, Vasili. One half-hour later, the Frenchmen were gone. Other than the Bubkas, there was bupkus.

Olson, who has an unfortunate record of underachieving in big meets, didn't make it to 8. On his first two attempts, he simply ran through the pit. Then, on his final shot at 18 feet 4 1/2 inches -- more than one foot below his indoor best -- he made a half-hearted plant, casually chinned himself on his banana-colored pole, rode it all of six feet into the air, and fell onto the pit cushions as soft as a mushmelon. Olson, who looks like Mr. Peepers after blitz work at Holiday Spa, limped back up the runway to get his sweats, which he might better have left in a taxicab with the meter running. There were some boos in his wake. There would have been more, but Madison Square Garden was not yet half full.

This was a discordant note for Olson, the premier American pole vaulter, a man who'd set an indoor record 11 times since 1984, four times in the last nine weeks. It might have been particularly discordant since this was the first time he'd vaulted against Bubka since Bubka's disdainful comment, " Olson will have to improve to be a worthy opponent of mine."

Oh yeah. Bubka talks trash about Olson, says he can't win the big one, says he's no threat at all outdoors. Olson talks trash about Dial, says Dial doesn't show at the quality meets, jumps in the boonies. Dial gets his licks in, saying he loves beating Olson and making him look silly. You remember "Star Wars"? These are "Over The Bar Wars."

After mentioning his sinuses, his sore buttock, his nosebleeds, his dry and cracked skin, the pressure behind his eyes, the lousy heating in his hotel room and the hamstring he pulled on his last attempt at 18-4 1/2, Olson said he was not making any excuses. "I did the best I could," he said. "It's been a long season and I'm tired. The last few weeks, I've been going downhill. If I was smart and I worried about my career, I probably would have quit two weeks ago."

Olson said that he came to try to pile up enough Grand Prix points to win a bunch of money, but "no-heighting" cost him his lead in the point standings. "I wasn't running worth a flip," he said. "I was running on memory. It felt like I had fishbowls in my eyes. Every time I took a step down the runway, my eyes were bouncing in my head. I couldn't even see the box. I had no idea where I was going. I was totally helpless." Quoth Roseann Roseannadanna: It's always something.

Dial, who has gone 19-4 3/4, managed to clear only 18-0 1/2 and was out by 8:40 after missing at 18-8 1/4. Coming down on his last attempt, he hit the bar with his hand, and, standing in the pit, he tried Carlton Fisk body language to keep the bar from tumbling. "Damn! I think if I'd made that, I'd have really rolled," he said. Dial doesn't lack for confidence. "My purpose in coming here was to break the world record." He's sure he'll eventually go 20 feet. "That's a big one for me. I want to be first. I may have to do it this year."


"Cause of Bubka."

Speaking of Bubka, Dial says his conversations with Bubka usually spin on a recurrent theme. "He wants to know about millionaires," Dial said, giggling. "I guess he thinks everyone in America is a millionaire. He asked me if I was a millionaire. I said, not hardly. He was sure Dwight Stones was a millionaire. I said, no; Carl Lewis, yes."

Who knows what they're paying Bubka back in the U.S.S.R. But whatever it is, he ought to be a lock for a merit raise. After his brother Vasili failed to vault higher than 18-10 1/4, Sergei had the stage all to himself. He already had cleared 19-2 1/4, and he had them set the bar at 19-6 1/4, higher than anyone has ever gone indoors. (The Garden runs a class meet. The man who rides the forklift up to set the bar wears a tux.)

He missed once. Then an eerie quiet seemed to freeze everyone in the place, and he pounded down the runway for his second try. He cleared it easily; there was enough room to shove a $7 sandwich between his chest and the bar. He exulted in the pit, then pranced joyously back up the runway to an appreciative roar. It was the ninth time an indoor record was set this season, the third for Bubka, who then called it a night. "After setting a new record, if I've already won the competition, I never jump any more," he said through an interpreter.

The record was set at 10:17, earlier than anyone imagined. By then, Dial was reviewing his form on video, and Olson was back in his hotel using a humidifier in the constant battle against the dreaded New York heating. They did not hear Bubka dedicate his record first to the opening of the Congress of the Communist Party and then to his mother, who was that day celebrating her birthday.