The hour was late and most of the competition had ended, but no one was leaving Madison Square Garden. On the floor, athletes in brightly colored warmup clothes sat in small clusters, themselves now spectators. Officials, too, their stop watches put away for the night, stood in twos and threes, watching. The attention of everyone in the house, some 16,000 people, was fixed on one man—a boy, really—18-year-old Valeri Brumel of Russia.
Brumel was about to make his third and final attempt to clear the high-jump bar at 7 feet 3 inches. Already he had won his heralded duel with John Thomas, the best high jumper in the United States. Thomas had failed at 7 feet 2 inches. Now Brumel, in his first appearance in this country, was trying to match Thomas' world indoor record. He had missed on his first two tries.
Several times he kicked his legs high in the air, getting loose. Then, standing perfectly still, he raised his left hand, almost in salute to the crowd, the signal to the officials near the pit that he was about to start. His first few steps were superficial, simply walking strides to get him under way. Suddenly he was moving fast, almost violently, toward the pit. His left foot stamped into the boards and his body hurtled up. He kept his left arm snug to his chest, his left, or trailing, leg high. Then he was clear and falling, leaving the bar untouched above him.
Brumel was on his feet and running almost instantly after he landed. He raced over to Leonid Khomenkov, a Russian track official, who kissed him on the cheek. Meet officials grabbed for his hand, athletes applauded and photographers surged around him. Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue in New York City had a new hero—a hero from the smoky industrial city of Voroshilovgrad in the Ukraine.
An unknown talent
Until the Olympic Games last summer, few people outside of Russia had ever heard of Valeri Brumel. Then, in Rome, in what at the time seemed like an upset, he beat John Thomas in the high jump, finishing second to his Russian teammate, Robert Shavlakadze. Last month, on the same weekend that John Thomas jumped 7 feet 3 inches in Boston, Brumel did 7 feet 4� inches (off a dirt floor, so not an official record) in Leningrad. That set the stage for Brumel's visit to New York and his duel with Thomas.
Brumel is a pleasant-looking boy. He is a little over six feet tall, and weighs about 175 pounds. He has a high forehead and prominent ears, brown hair cut fairly short and gray eyes. He smiles often, except when he is competing.
He was born in 1942 in the tiny settlement of Tolbuzino near Lake Baikal in Siberia. Only muffled echoes of the battles 3,000 miles to the west penetrated his area, so that Valeri was spared the hunger and hardship that left permanent physical marks on many of the war-born generation. After the war his family moved, and for the past eight years they have lived in Voroshilovgrad. His father is a coal mining engineer, his mother a mine technician. Valeri himself is a student at Moscow's Physical Culture Institute. He hopes one day to become an instructor in physical education.
Brumel arrived in New York four days before the meet. Four other Russians came with him—Khomenkov, the track official, a dark, squat, angry-looking man; Yuri Sedov, an interpreter with two gold front teeth; Evgeny Momotkov, a guitar-playing distance runner; and Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, a broad jumper who speaks English. Brumel did no formal jumping before the meet, though he and Momotkov did get in a workout one afternoon on Manhattan College's outdoor board track. Brumel jogged around the track, occasionally sprinting and leaping high into the air. He stopped his jogging several times to make and throw snowballs.
In the oval of the track was a jumping pit filled with bits of foam rubber, just as the pit in the Garden is. Brumel tested it gingerly with his foot, then did a little flip, landing on his back in the pit. He looked delighted and sprawled comfortably on his back for a minute. Photographer Jerry Cooke, who speaks Russian, said, "He says they have nothing like this in Russia. They jump into sand."