Valeri Brumel moves with a slow grace. His face is handsome, with smooth, even features and soft blue-green eyes, yet it is brooding and possessed. He jogs around the stadium with a slight limp. He is a wounded champion. It is hard to imagine a defect beneath the dark blue sweat suit, white wool socks and Adidas track shoes. Standing under a portrait of Lenin in the great stadium in Sochi, the Black Sea resort, Brumel still seems very much the world high-jump record holder. Indeed, his record (7'5�", which he set in 1963) is still unbroken, but there is a tragic flaw. The skin is scarred on his right leg along the lower part of the shin. On the night of Oct. 6, 1965 Valeri Brumel, age 23, high-jump champion of the Soviet Union, Europe and the Olympic Games, was thrown from a motorcycle along the Moscow River embankment.
Brumel was riding pillion behind a friend, a merited master rider. She skidded driving through an underpass, and as they emerged the motorcycle hit the curb, throwing them both. She was unhurt. Brumel remembers striking the concrete abutment of a lamppost, then, as he recovered consciousness, seeing his white bone. His leg was so badly injured that he recalls, "It seemed as if I carried my foot in my hands to the hospital at midnight."
The operation lasted five hours. His shinbones were pulverized. The surgeon who performed the operation, Dr. Ivan Kucherenko, head of the traumatology department of Moscow's Sklifosovsky Institute, told newsmen who gathered at the hospital: "I cannot guarantee anything. He suffered a severe oblique comminuted fracture of the tibia and femur in the lower part of the shin, aggravated by considerable damage to the soft tissue. As you journalists would say, his foot hung by a thread." Another surgeon, in less precise language, said: "Brumel's leg was a complete mess." There was a threat of amputation, but Dr. Kucherenko saved the leg. Piecing the shattered bones together was like creating a mosaic.
The following morning a close friend was permitted a brief visit. Brumel was exhausted, lost and remorseful. "It turned out badly...very badly," he said. "You know I could have cleared 7'7�". It's a shame I didn't do it. But I will. Remember what I say. In one, two or five years I'll invite you to my first training session."
But the leg did not heal. Brumel developed osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone marrow. Again his leg was threatened with amputation. For months drugs didn't seem to work. Then, slowly, his leg began to mend. He was allowed to stand on crutches. By February 1966, Brumel and his doctors were optimistic. "If everything continues well Valeri could begin practicing within half a year," said Dr. Kucherenko. When the cast was removed X rays showed that the bones had knit, but the new bone growth had not yet hardened. Brumel was buoyant and began preliminary training, lifting 6�-pound dumbbells in his room and swimming regularly in the pool at the Sklifosovsky Institute. Gradually, he was able to take, a few steps without the aid of crutches. "I think I shall be able to resume training by autumn, and the first prize I win in competition will go to Dr. Kucherenko," Brumel told sports-writers.
He began to walk without his crutches. Then he tried to climb stairs on his own. One day in March he walked down the stairs from his room without crutches. As he began to climb back he felt a sharp pain in his leg. Even with crutches he found it difficult to return to bed. He had pushed himself and his leg too quickly and dislocated bones that had not yet completely mended. He had to begin his recovery all over again.
Brumel was transferred to the Moscow Central Institute for Traumatology and Orthopedics where four metallic needles in a special compression device were used to fasten his bones in place. Plans to resume training had to be abandoned. "Of course, I alone am to blame for all this," Brumel explained. "I had succumbed to a kind of hypnosis. Everyone asked me when I would begin jumping again. That's why I was too hasty." By the spring of 1968, after spending nearly two years in bed and on crutches, Brumel was still very much a cripple. His right leg was three centimeters (slightly more than an inch) shorter than his left leg. At this point, there was little talk of training and still less of jumping.
Nonetheless, Brumel had managed to graduate from the Moscow Institute of Physical Culture and was qualified for a career as a trainer or physical education instructor. He was 26, married, with a son. He had a two-room apartment in a new building near the Dynamo Stadium, and a Mercedes 220, a rare luxury for a Soviet citizen. He had become a full member of the Communist Party and could count on a career as an athletic official. Yet, after six operations on his leg, Brumel still dreamed of becoming a champion again. The single-mindedness that had got him the world record had taken hold once more. He visited specialists, sought consultations and solutions. There seemed to be no answer until a sportswriter told Brumel about Gavril Ilizarov, a surgeon from Kurgan in western Siberia, who had developed his own radical method for treating fractures. Dr. Ilizarov rejected plaster casts because he said they interfered with circulation and caused stiffness. Brumel flew to the small city in the Urals and discussed his case with Dr. Ilizarov, who detailed a five-month program to lengthen Brumel's leg and get him back in condition to begin training. Not only was his right leg three centimeters shorter than the left, but his right thigh had become three centimeters thinner from muscle atrophy.
On May 28, 1968 Brumel was operated on by Dr. Ilizarov. He sliced through the shinbone on a diagonal just above the shattered portion. Then clamps were set in place on the bone, forcing the severed shinbones apart at the rate of three-fourths of a millimeter every 24 hours. The rate of movement, however, was so slight that it did not interfere with the bone-knitting process, and after 45 days the pressure had produced the required three centimeters of bone. At the time of the operation, Dr. Ilizarov also used bone grafts to fortify the shattered segments of shinbone. On Oct. 18, nearly five months later, the treatment was complete, and Brumel was able to walk with a slight limp but without crutches.
Then came the slow, often agonizing conditioning process: massage, swimming, running, weight lifting. On Dec. 15, 1968 Brumel invited friends to his first training session since the accident. At the Young Pioneers' Stadium in Moscow he performed gymnastic exercises, did knee bends on his right leg and worked with weights. He walked over to the high-jump pit and looked at the bar, but he did not jump. Dr. Ilizarov had issued strict instructions. Brumel was to work out in the gym, have his leg massaged, run cross-country and swim. "I'll start jumping after I learn to run," he said. When Brumel set his world record he ran 100 meters in 10.6. Now his goal was 12 seconds.