When Billy Olson said of the Madison Square Garden pole-vault runway that it was "soft and slow and old and overcrowded and weird," he made that red plywood ramp a metaphor not only for his event, but for the whole staging of the 1986 Wanamaker Millrose Games.
Officials at this most history-laden indoor meet ended up counting misses in the vault as well as laps in the 3,000 meters and hours in the women high jumpers' day, with scant regard for rules or reality, or civility. "I guess," said Olson, after he had won, with 19'�', on fewer misses than Dave Volz, "you have to consider it a tainted competition."
Olson's heralded first meeting with the other two raisers of the world indoor vault record this season, Oklahoma's Joe Dial (19'4�") and the U.S.S.R.'s Sergei Bubka (19'5"), was compromised from the start by that scarred, warped approach—and by the Valentine's Day crowd that had somehow obtained infield credentials and massed along the runway.
Through this delightful company the vaulters had to sprint, carrying 16� feet of pole, aiming for the smallest pit on the indoor circuit. Bubka, 22, was aghast. "The wood surface is unacceptable," he said. "And the mats [the pit] are too small. I could be seriously hurt."
For years Olson has called the Garden's vaulting setup unsafe, so this time Millrose meet director Howard Schmertz beefed up the pit—by grabbing that of the women's high jump. But that meant the women could not jump until the men were finished, which turned out to be after midnight. "You see how important we are," said Canada's Debbie Brill. "Of course, this is first of all a show." She was a trouper, going on to clear a winning 6'4" at 1:06 a.m., with maybe 150 people left in the place.
Stolen padding or not, Bubka disliked the pit. He took repeated warmup runs to learn the dips and dead spots of the approach. Even so, the early vaulting was terrible, with Olson, Bubka and Dial all missing badly at their opening height of 18'4�". "Everybody felt the pressure of the best all being together," said Olson. "I was out of control at the start."
Dial had the best excuse. TWA had shipped his poles to St. Louis. He borrowed one from Dave Kenworthy but never got the hang of it. He missed again. "But," said Dial, "some photographer stuck his hand in front of me during the run." Dial complained of interference and was given another attempt. Then, when Olson was driving at the box on his second attempt, a man backed into his path. "A lady grabbed him or I would have hit him," said Olson. He missed the man and the vault. But Olson, too, was granted a second second jump.
Whereupon Bubka, usually unflappable, could take no more. He announced he was withdrawing from the competition. These free vaults seemed to him a transparent strategy—he called it "subterfuge"—by which the officials were insuring that the name vaulters made it to the higher heights. He pointed out that his older brother, Vasiliy, 25, who has cleared 19'2�", got no relief for interference after he missed at 18'4�", when "a fat photographer" fired a flashgun in his eyes on his takeoff.
Bubka was blunt. He simply cited the international rule. "Only three tries for everybody. Not four. This is so silly. It's a circus, not a track meet."
"The Athletics Congress rules in effect in this country," meet referee Pat Rico explained to Bubka, "are that if you are interfered with, it becomes a non-jump. If you feel you've been interfered with, you can get another jump."