There was relative calm that night in Kiev, a year ago this weekend. An uneasy truce between the government and opposition saw Hrushevskoho Street partially cleared while the Maidan Nezalezhnosti protestors around the corner braced themselves for the violence they sensed was coming. The official beginning of the 2014 Ukranian Revolution was still three days away.
Meanwhile, 700 kms to the east, and just 100 kms from the Russian border, Renaud Lavillenie is busy creating his own history. The Frenchman looks nervous and uncertain, waiting on the track for the introductions he couldn’t understand to cease. There is little contrast between the paleness of his freshly chalked hands and the pallor of a face that puffs out its cheeks, licks its dry lips, and stares down the runway and into the unknown. Up in the heavens of the stadium in Donetsk, the god of the sport is at home and relaxed, looking down upon the latest of 21 years’ worth of mortals to challenge his position as the one true deity.
Lavillenie nods to himself, as if to say, you belong here – this is your time. But few are convinced. He has just required all three attempts to clear 6.01m and the bar now looms 6.16 metres above the ground. As a smiling Sergey Bubka is seen settling himself into his throne to watch, Lavillenie hoists his pole aloft like a gondolier preparing to propel his cargo through the murky waters of Venice. Focused now, he rocks from heel to ball of foot and back again, perhaps in search of that extra Newton of momentum that could make all the difference.
Suddenly, straight-backed, he sets off and powers towards his destiny. He hits his mark and time appears to stand still as the vaulting pole flexes to the limits of its capability. Lavillenie’s mass and speed squared combine to load the pole with enough energy to shorten its chord length to within a whisker of snapping in agony. Time then seems to accelerate as the pole fights back, returning energy with interest to send him soaring towards the stars of the Ukranian winter sky.
Once at the summit, Lavillenie’s body curls itself around the bar like a three-toed sloth settling down for the night. He is so close in places that the mystic sense we humans possess that allows us to gauge proximity to something without actually touching or seeing it kicks in. Again, a slowing of time is evident as, for a split second, he is suspended in thin air, higher than a pole-vaulter has ever been legitimately measured reaching. Legs splayed and arms stretched out, Renaud has become one of the stars he was aiming for.
Before he hits the mat the shock and bewilderment on the Frenchman’s face is clear for all to see. More than all in attendance, he himself can’t quite believe what he has achieved. He needs to first look upwards just to check the bar is still there, resting obediently in place over 20 feet above the track. He puts his hands to his head, pulls at his hair even, starts to run but soon realises he does not know where to go, what to do, how to react. Coaches, rivals, friends move to embrace the new world record holder but Lavillenie is in a state of shock. He wanders back onto the track, covers his face, and lies down. It is probably that or collapse. It is how clearing a greater height than any human being had ever cleared before should be celebrated.
Up in the gods that night, Bubka got to his feet to applaud Lavillenie’s feat before making his way down to greet and congratulate his successor. The Ukrainian legend is known as a good man, a warm man, but there was a suggestion that the smile was somewhat painted on. It may have merely been an understandable inability to completely hide the natural disappointment that must be felt when something cherished is lost and there was certainly no animosity nor bitterness in the great Bubka’s reaction: but look closely at his eyes in the video footage and it is possible to detect a sense of regret that betrays lingering thoughts of what might have been.
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.
In total, Bubka broke the world record 35 times (17 outdoor and 18 indoor). At face value, extraordinary statistics. The sad truth is, however, we can never be sure we witnessed him vault as high as he could. Bubka was so dominant over such a prolonged period of time that no sponsor was willing to offer the traditional win bonuses that are the bread and butter of professional track and field stars. It took some bright spark at Nike to produce a different incentive to keep Sergey going: world record bonuses. As much as $100,000 each time if some reports are to be believed. Unable to look such a gift horse in the mouth, Bubka took his time. In the late 80s and early 90s he gradually inched (or centimetred) his way north of the six metre mark. In less than two years between 1991 and 1993, he bested his previous mark an astonishing 14 times.
Bubka did not come close to celebrating any of those historic vaults in the manner Lavillenie did his a couple of weeks ago in Donetsk. Perhaps familiarity bred contempt. Maybe it was so easy for him that he was embarrassed to behave like he had done something special. After world record number 25 or 26 does the whole thing get a bit stale? Could be, but I can’t help feeling that the subdued response to each new mark was masking a reluctance to stop and a fear that today could be the day: that particular moment in time was when he was destined to reach his peak.
Regardless of what modern-day sports conditioners try to tell you, 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 8.90 metres. It bettered the 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 Bob’s moment of optimum performance and he certainly made the most of it.
Lavillenie is still only 28 and has many vaults left in the tank, but the evidence on hand today suggests that he too managed to cash in his chips following the most optimal spin of life’s great roulette wheel. He has tried and failed to better his record several times: most recently this weekend in Berlin where he cleared 6.02m, the highest he has gone since that heady night in Donetsk. While Lavillenie believes he is getting closer with each attempt, history may prove the opposite to be true. But even if so, the Frenchman will surely lay his pole to rest with zero regrets.
Can we say the same of Bubka? 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 Serhiy Nazarovych Bubka could have gone.