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There are a million rosebushes in his city, one for every resident, 10,000 for every heap of slag; yes, that is what they say. Tonight his nose believes them. Tonight he can smell only the rose petals, not the stink of steel mills and slag.

It is a warm summer evening in the Ukraine. Up there, just behind that second-story window of the clinic, are his wife and firstborn child—two days old, a son!

His weight shifts from foot to foot. His eyes dart. Such stupid rules! They have allowed him to see his wife and baby only through a window. Tomorrow he must fly to Moscow, then to France, without even having touched them.

His eyes measure the distance from the sidewalk to Lillya's window. A little more than five meters, surely less than six; oh, imagine the look on her face if he were to. . . .

We leave the world's best pole vaulter standing outside a maternity clinic in Donetsk—a glimmer in his deep-set blue eyes.


It began with Gavril Rayevsky lying in a Ukrainian forest with a German bullet in his brain. When the bullet was removed and his skull resealed and the war ended, all Rayevsky could dream about was launching his body into the sky, closer and closer to the clouds. He hid the documents that declared him an invalid—and pole-vaulted.

Years passed. One day a boy approached Rayevsky. His name was Vitaly Petrov; people called him a hooligan. After his father was killed in the war, Petrov had wandered through his devastated village near Donetsk, finding only trouble, until he was sent to reform school. Why did he keep dreaming about launching his body into the sky, up and toward the clouds?

Rayevsky taught Petrov to pole-vault. Years passed. One day a boy approached Petrov. The boy's father was a Red Army sergeant who sometimes forgot his two sons weren't privates. Oh, to learn to sail through the sky, thought the boy, heels flying two, three times as high as the head of the sergeant standing, ramrod stiff, at attention.

And so Petrov taught Sergei Bubka to pole-vault. Years passed. The boy, now grown, won three European championships and two world championships, set 18 world records. In the West, people would say he was the product of a system.


Perhaps this is smugness. In America athletes of the Eastern bloc are thought to be assembled with screws and wrenches, products of a system. Our own athletes, of course, are self-created men, lonely heroes who triumph against all odds, in spite of systems.

Systems make men who work at the front doors of maternity clinics, barring visitors from entering. Systems cannot make men who stand outside, staring up, wondering if they might pole-vault through a second-story window.

Great artists and athletes are men with obsessions—or bullets—in their brains; men with no fathers or too much father; men with physical or psychic scars who are compelled to float weightless, free. Great artists and athletes are not products. They are creators. Each one of them is one. “I want to be an artist of the pole vault. I want to create something new and unusual, I want to break barriers. I pole-vault from the bottom of my heart.”

O.K., is that enough? Bubka's fingers drum the table, his teeth gnaw on his lip, his knee jiggles and his foot taps as he talks. He has been sitting in one place for half an hour, intolerably long.

“I love the pole vault because it is a professor's sport. One must not only run and jump, but one must think. Which pole to use, which height to jump, which strategy to use.” His hands keep chopping up the air, making forceful gestures. “I love it because the results are immediate and the strongest is the winner. Everyone knows it. In everyday life that is difficult to prove.”

Surely, that's enough. He thumbs through a magazine, bites his fingernails, glances at his wristwatch. “My blood boils,” he confides. “I feel sorry for the one who sits behind me at a movie.”

Something half mischief and half arrogance always seems to spark his pale blue eyes, to tug the edges of his lips. Bubka feels his great strength—that's how his coach, Petrov, puts it. Here is a man who has personally altered his art form, changed the way competitors prepare for it and perform it, even the way spectators perceive it. Before, the pole vault was a filler for the eyes, a slow, four-hour saga for track fans to glance at during lags between the terser dramas bursting all around it. Then came Bubka, slashing and snorting down the runway like a sprinter, driving down on the tip of his fiberglass stake and erupting into the air, a whistle shrieking from his lips as he cleared the bar, both fists clenched and raised as he plunged to the pit. Other men pole-vaulted. Sergei Bubka catapulted. “Like an animal,” says Don Bragg, 1960 Olympic pole vault gold medalist. “He lets go of everything.”

He could run the 100 meters in 10.2 seconds, long-jump nearly 26 feet and hurl the shot 44 feet. Why didn't he consider the decathlon? The pole vault is my event, Bubkawould say. He was chosen the top sportsman in the Soviet Union in 1984, '85 and '86; some consider this 6-foot, 176-pound man to be the greatest athlete in all of track and field. He has made the world record his toy, nudging it up, centimeter by centimeter, often with so much air between his belly and the bar that many believe he could have raised the record a foot higher long ago and nailed it to his wall for a decade.

Three months ago, in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, he upped the mark to 19 ft. 10 1/4 in., a warning shot into the sky to make sure the boys vaulting half a foot below got no odd ideas about the Seoul Olympics. In July in Nice he raised it again, to 19 ft. 10 1/2 in.. “You know all eight cylinders will be firing in Seoul,” says Billy Olson, a vaulter on the U.S. Olympic team. “The Olympic gold is the only thing he doesn't have.”

“It's his moment in time,” says Larry Jessee, a former vaulter from El Paso who is Bubka's friend.

Bubka's eyes dart back to his watch—the next moment in time never seems to come fast enough. The Olympics? He shrugs. It is not for the great to confess they have needs. “I know I can vault higher than anyone in the world,” he says. “That is more important than winning any medal.”

He is moving now, happy to be sprung from the oppressiveness of table and chair. His arms flap high as he walks, his weight rolls on the balls of his feet, and he springs into each new step. On a sidewalk filled with his countrymen, he stands out. It is not just his animal vitality and blue Adidas pullover; somehow he seems both happier than they are—and less settled. “There are many things good about Donetsk,” he says. His hand waves toward a patch of rosebushes awaiting one more warm week to bloom beneath the big black statue of Lenin. “And a few things not so good.” His eyes lift to the gray smear on the skyline.

The chimney stacks of 150 factories, the slag heaps of 100 coal mines poke above the city; some heaps ooze fumes for up to a century. “How lucky we are,” the people of Donetsk like to say. “Who else but us get to see what they breathe? Oh, did you hear about the man from our city who went by car to the countryside for the weekend, and fainted? They took him to the exhaust pipe of the car—in no time at all, he felt much better!”

A few decades ago, someone in Donetsk made a discovery. Roses flourish among slag heaps. The city became obsessed with the notion, with bursts of pink and red and yellow shooting up into the carbon haze. The need to cast beauty in the face of ugliness, to seed oppression with freedom—wasn't that, too, what drove a 10-year-old Ukrainian boy to grab a pole and burst into the sky?

There was so much that confused Bubka as a child in Voroshilovgrad, the coal-mining town where he grew up, 85 miles from Donetsk. Which way he should complete his tasks at night, which coat he should wear when he went out in the morning—why was it always so hard to please his father? Why did his dad shout and his mother cry sometimes at night? Why did the tension in the house seem to come crackling, as if by electric conduction, out of the feet and fingertips of the younger of their two boys?

It seemed that wherever Sergei was, somewhere else always called to him. His family would find him in the strangest places, dancing on the roof, crumpled in a heap at the bottom of the cellar stairs, or dangling from the cherry tree, saved from a terrible fall only by a branch that snagged his shirt. Once his brother, Vasily, older by three years, saw the heels of Sergei's shoes protruding from the deep barrel where his mother soaked and salted cabbage. “Mother, come quick!” he cried, and when she yanked the four-year-old's head from the water at the bottom of the barrel, his breathing had stopped and his face was turning blue. She ran screaming for help. Hold him by the ankles and shake him, a neighbor cried, and finally Sergei's little chest began to heave. “I was looking for heroic deeds,” he says, grinning, “and I always seemed to find them.”

When Sergei was about nine, a friend who lived nearby told him about the pole vault, how a man could use a stick to make a rocket of his body. When the boy left, Sergei kept looking up to the spot above his head where his friend had pointed. He looked out across the slag heaps of Voroshilovgrad. Let the others spend their lives digging into the earth. He would dig his heels into the sky.

The world of sports was foreign to the sergeant; perhaps that's why his little boy ran to it. Nazar Bubka would sit at home smoking cigarettes, drawing his anger through them as darkness fell each day, his son off somewhere on a crosstown tram, making the long ride home from training. “Enough!” the sergeant boomed one night. “No more pole-vaulting.” The career of the world's best pole vaulter might well have been over at 11; instead, the boy infected his older brother with his fever. See, Dad, it's O.K.—now he had an escort.

Sergei came home one day a year later with a broken tooth and a mouthful of blood. Again his father's eyes grew hard. “No more!” he hollered, and locked the boy in the house. Soon Sergei had slipped away to training, wrapped his hands around a pole and was sailing through the air. Aren't you afraid? others asked him. Maybe sometimes, of course, but somehow his fear always seemed a little less than his need.

He was irrepressible; a rose amidst the slag. When it came time for the family's vacation in the Crimea, the sergeant loaded up the car and drove to the summer sports camp to pick up his son. Sergei darted into the woods and hid for five hours, until he was certain his father had given up and gone without him. Then he went back to training. His mother? She was a nurse, kind and generous, easily moved to tears, that's what everyone said. Unconditional love is the enemy of anecdote: No one seems to remember any stories about Valentina Bubka.

“What makes Sergei so extraordinary is the two opposite traits he has,” says Boris Tulchinsky, a psychologist who works with Bubka. “It is strange to see in one man so strong a nature with so subtle a soul. He feels small nuances deeply.” Do systems make men like that? No, mothers and fathers like these do, in the Ukraine and in Utah, in Moscow and in Milwaukee. Years later Bubka would feel as thankful for the discipline and hardness his father had given him as for his mother's softness; back then it only filled him with confusion.

His coach, Petrov, had begun to realize this boy might be the golden bird he had always longed to catch, longed for even as a 12-year-old in reform school, already training older boys to run and crouch and jump. Petrov, too, was a creator, unafraid of new ideas. He had seen a 1951 film that showed a man, Yuri Tham, pole-vaulting despite having lost one hand during the war. Unable to carry the pole parallel to the ground with two hands as he approached the bar, Tham vaulted by holding it perpendicular, pointing it straight up to the sky, and letting it descend gradually as he ran so that the tip of the pole touched down just at the moment he needed to leap. Why shouldn't a two-handed man do it that way? wondered Petrov. Might not the descent of the pole give him more forward momentum and explosion?

“The man must be a helluva coach,” Jessee would say years later. “Bubka's brother, Vasily, doesn't look like he could vault 12 feet, and he's done 19 ft. 2 3/4 in.”

Perhaps even more important than Petrov's technical brilliance was this: He did not mind his place in the shade. He let young Sergei's ego pulse and glow. Each new height the boy achieved would thrill him; joy shone from his face and surged through his upraised arms.

By the time you are 20, the coach told Sergei one day, you must break the world record. The 14-year-old looked up at him and nodded. But how? Training here in Voroshilovgrad, using these shabby facilities? This town was a graveyard for a serious track coach and a teenage phenomenon—and Petrov knew it. In 1979, when Bubka was 15, the break came; Petrov was offered a job in Donetsk, where the Ukraine's largest indoor track and field facility had been built. But could the golden bird go with him?

In Bubka's house all was chaos. The sergeant had left; he and his wife were divorcing. Eighteen-year-old Vasily packed his bags and went with Petrov. That left only Sergei to stay with Valentina. No, Sergei told himself, it wasn't right—if he left, too, his mother would have lost her entire family. He stayed home, opened his schoolbooks at night, bent over them and cried.

For three months his mother watched him suffer. Then she decided: Her unhappiness she could endure, but not his. Go, she said. Early one morning he climbed aboard the train, afraid to look back to the platform, unable to bear that last glimpse of his mother crying.

Was there any choice now? He had orphaned himself for his passion; only greatness could justify such pain. He was 15 and on his own, vaulting the chasm from childhood to manhood with a six-pound fiberglass pole.

Had he catapulted out of misery, or into it? Sometimes he wondered. Life became harder than he had ever known it. Sergei and his brother lived in a dormitory for factory workers, hanging food in bags outside the window in winter because they had no refrigerator, shivering because there was barely any heat. Each day he went to school until 2 p.m., worked out until seven, then slumped over his homework until midnight. The teenager drove himself. Was the sergeant gone from his life, or had he pitched camp inside Sergei's head?

Two years in a row, at the ages of 17 and 18, he broke the same bone in his left foot during training and was told by a specialist to abandon the sport. He scoffed and pressed on.

And then in 1983, at age 19, a complete unknown, he found himself in the World Championships in Helsinki. One by one, the big names dropped away, tormented by the wind. Now the bar was at 18 ft. 4 1/2 in., and Bubka was one miss from elimination. If I don't do this, he thought, I won't think of myself as a good person. I'll be nothing.

That was how he saw the world and himself, everything as now or never, all or nothing. He threw himself into the wind, let everything go under conditions that had made the other vaulters prudent—and soared over the bar, shouting with joy while still in the air. A few minutes later, on his first attempt at 18 ft. 8 1/4 in., he did it again. Suddenly he was champion of the world!

Bubka left the world press stranded, so raw he didn't know that post-meet press conferences existed. At the airport in Donetsk, he was welcomed by a throng that included hundreds of children in red scarves, a band of musicians and the traditional gift of his region, black bread and salt. The gray haze of carbon and sulfur hung over the city. All he could smell were the roses in his arms.

Two months later, Bubka met an 18-year-old Donetsk woman. Within 10 months, they were married. Nine more months and they were parents. You could almost hearSergei drumming his nail-bitten fingers on the table: O.K., Lillya, what's next?

He had no patience for the world record, either. Within a year of his triumph in Helsinki, he had broken the world record four times. The marks popped like a string of firecrackers, set off on an evening in May of '84, when he learned that the Soviet team would boycott the Los Angeles Olympics—four records in just over three months to make damn sure no one read the pole-vault news from L.A. with anything but scorn.

Jessee remembers being at a meet in London on July 13, sitting next to Polish vaulter Tadeusz Slusarski, winner of the gold medal in the '76 Olympics and the silver in '80. The bar was at 18 ft. 8 1/4 in.. Bubka cleared it by a foot and a half. The bar was moved to 19 ft. 4 1/4 in. Bubka screamed over with eight inches to spare. Slusarski took the cigarette from Jessee's mouth and inhaled it slowly. “It is over,” he said quietly. “It is over.”

“My god,” recalls Jessee, “you could hear the tip of his pole hit the box on the other side of the stadium. He'd ruined it for all of us. We'd had a pretty good gig going before him, where 18 feet was a good jump and 18 ft. 8 in. was spectacular. Suddenly you had to jump 19 1/2 feet to compete.”

The odd thing was the change that came over Bubka when it was time to compete. Here was a man who loathed chess, the Soviet game, because he could not bear to sit that long, who recoiled from the 800-page novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and embraced the four-line poems of Omar Khayyam—involved in an event that could last six or seven hours, all but a few seconds of which were spent waiting. “Wait?” says Lillya, laughing. “He cannot wait for anything. I cannot even get the dinner from the counter to the table before it is gone. He will circle the table while we are eating—talking, going to the TV, going to the stereo. Sometimes he is so impatient he destroys the mood of the entire house.”

The Russians have a phrase: “He has needles in his behind.” And yet, somewhere very deep inside him, there was a switch. During competitions, all the restlessness he radiated would abruptly shut down, all his energy turn inward. It would befuddle other vaulters, those who jangle while they wait, touch their toes, flex their knees, run warmup sprints. Bubka would lie there like a mummy, not even watching his opponents' leaps, waiting for the bar to reach a height worthy of his talent. Then he would stand, fetch his pole, rock back on his heels and let go.

What separates this man from the others? Because of his powerful lower torso, speed and banzai approach, he is able to use a pole designed for a man 40 pounds heavier. The stiffer the pole and lighter the vaulter, the more whip the pole could create—provided the vaulter is able to bend it. No other vaulter generates the explosion at lift-off that could make so stiff a pole bend—only Bubka. Then, too, he uses a grip half a foot higher than the others, forcing his rivals to inch their hands closer to the ends of their poles, closer to danger, to have any hopes of challenging him.

In Rieti, Italy, in 1986, Bubka experimented with a pole that a more ordinary 19-foot vaulter might use. He blitzed down the runway during warmups, planted and leaned into his leap—and suddenly he was spinning out of control, five pieces of the exploded fiberglass pole shooting like shrapnel all about him and one jagged four-foot chunk in his hand. “I still don't know how he did it,” says U.S. vaulter Brad Pursley. “He did a backflip in the air, like a cat, and landed on his feet. It took incredible gymnastic skill and strength.”

Bubka stomped away after the Rieti incident, gesturing wildly, and refused to jump that night no matter how the meet officials begged him. These bursts of anger and exuberance, this leaping from the pit with his fists pumping when he succeeded or flailing at the nearest scapegoat when he failed, unnerved his countrymen. For years Petrov had tried to muffle Bubka, make him see that such demonstrations of feeling were not the Soviet way—they drew too much attention to one man. Then one day the coach finally understood and surrendered. Sergei Bubka's vaulting flowed straight from his own pain and joy. Sergei Bubka could never be the product of a system.


Mourning doves flap above the pole-vault runway, wind hurls small leaves across it like handfuls of golden confetti. It is the spring of Bubka's 24th year and he is about to begin his outdoor training. On the wooden bleachers near the pit sit three men—Petrov, the 43-year-old vaulting coach; Aleksandr Solomahin, Bubka's gymnastics coach; and Tulchinsky, the psychologist. A pole vaulter in America, once he graduates from college, is often on a lonely crusade. A team of professional advisers analyzes virtually every move Bubka makes; he's not the product of a system, but he has the support of one.

Bubka spends hours on form work, breaking each movement into increments, repeating them over and over. But the wind disturbs him today. The American photographer perched in a cherry picker above the bar distracts him, too. The bar is only a little higher than 17 feet, but again and again he flies under it or knocks it away with his legs or aborts his attempt halfway down the runway. He smashes his hand against the upright in rage. “What is the matter?” he cries to Petrov.

“You began fine,” says Petrov. “The problem was in your technique during the transfer.”

As Bubka keeps missing, his exasperation grows. Competition, another human being to be better than—Bubka needs that to be master of his inner agitation. “Without a rival to equal me, I will never show my potential completely,” he says. “Sometimes it appears other vaulters' results are near to mine, but in reality they are not near at all. Often I jump only what I need to jump to win. If the world record were 6.20 [20 ft. 4 1/4 in.] right now, I'd jump 6.30 [20 ft. 8 in.]. That is simply the way I am.”

Thierry Vigneron, bronze co-medalist in the '84 Games, discovered that one August night in Rome soon after those Olympics, when he shoved a world-record 19 ft. 4 3/4 in. leap in Bubka's face. The massive crowd rose and cheered. “C'mon, Sergei,” urged Jessee, slapping his friend on the thigh. Bubka held up one finger. “One minute,” he said in English. “It will be O.K.”

He lay completely still, facedown in the grass, shutting out the world and all the restlessness it brought him, seeing himself, against the black of his eyelids, floating up where no one could touch him, up where he was weightless and free. Fifty-five thousand people fell silent, then came the shrieking whistle from the man moving through the air 19 ft. 5 3/4 in. off the ground. Bubka had snatched back his world record after less than 10 minutes.

It happened one too many times for Mike Tully; it ate at the American vaulter and finally spilled out after he had watched Bubka buzz a good half foot over a world-record height of 19 ft. 8 1/2 in. at the Goodwill Games in '86. “It all comes down to the doctor,” Tully charged in an interview with John Feinstein of The Washington Post. “I don't know what it is, but they've found something that doesn't show up in [drug] testing.”

Two years later, Tully still wonders out loud: “How can Bubka just turn it on like that? Athletes have to get pumped up, get their blood flowing, get loosened up, but he just lies there until his name's called, gets up and jumps. I'm not necessarily accusing him of drugs; he's a great athlete, but something weird is going on.”

Bubka was so incensed that he considered suing the Post in 1986 for printing Tully's original charges. “Tully has something up his sleeve,” Bubka says now. “Tully wants to nag me. A man must not blame his own failures on others. I set all my world records abroad, have been tested by different laboratories and equipment in many countries and no one has ever found any sign of drugs. I don't use them.”

The tension surfaced again last summer at a meet in Brussels, when the Ukrainian stood at the top of the runway, trying to outwait a swirling wind. At last, the two-minute clock expired, meaning his turn would usually count as a failed attempt, according to the rules. But when he finally began his approach and no official moved to halt him, Tully burst onto the runway screaming, followed by a contingent of other U.S. vaulters. Bubka stormed away and stewed, awaited his turn again, then knifed a hole into the wind and over the bar, bouncing out of the pit to smack his bicep and jerk up his fist at the Americans. He won the competition, of course.

“He has to be first in everything,” Petrov says. “Best pole vaulter, best car, best apartment.”

His wife rolls her eyes; even she is not exempt from his competitive drive. After Sergei and Lillya exchanged marriage vows four years ago, members of their wedding party spread a towel at the couple's feet. Lillya was an athlete, a gymnast who would eventually graduate from the Institute of Physical Culture in Kiev in 1987, two years after her husband graduated. Whoever stepped onto the towel first, according to Ukrainian tradition, would be the leader in the marriage. Lillya shakes her head. “My poor foot,” she says. “It did not have a chance.”

Mommy! Daddy's home!” Bubka's two sons, Vitaly, 3, and Sergeivich, 1, wait for him outside their high-rise apartment, wearing Oshkosh overalls and London Fog jackets. He steps out of a Soviet automobile worth $9,500. The two boys follow their father like shadows. He drops to the floor to play, as if determined to make fatherhood something different from what he had known as a child.

In Bubka's two-bedroom apartment, spacious by Soviet standards, there are an Oriental rug, a 27-inch Sony color TV in the living room, Mickey Mouse towel racks and a refrigerator decorated with an Adidas sticker. In the hall leading to his bedroom stands a bookshelf laden with his medals, including one from the Soviet government for each of his world records. A bonus in rubles worth $385 comes to him for each new mark. Why should he unfurl a 21-foot vault and deprive himself of all the paychecks in between?

The system was quick to embrace him as a symbol; Bubka returned the embrace. He was elected a member of the select Central Committee of Komsomol, the Young Communist League, in which his duties include raising funds for children's sports programs. Two years ago he became a Communist Party member as well.

“Any person who wants to do something great for this country has to join the Communist Party,” he declares. “Because the Communists in the U.S.S.R. are really doing all the tough work that has to be done here, making the important decisions. I think Gorbachev is a great man. Many people do not want to accept his new ways, but those ways are the right ones. I do not make judgments on other people. But I cannot bear idleness. I cannot even bear it during training if any of the other boys is not working. Everything I possess is thanks to my labor. If you want to have the same conditions as I have, go work and get them. Incentive is the only way. I cannot understand people who say they cannot do this or that. If you work hard, you can do anything you want. Before glasnost and after glasnost, I have always spoken from my heart.”

A few years ago, he made a Donetsk conference of Sports Committee officials squirm by pounding the podium and lashing into them for financially favoring certain sports. In addition, the discovery that foreign promoters were paying up to $10,000 to the Soviet Sports Committee for him to compete, of which Bubka received only a few hundred dollars if he won, made him seethe.

With the arrival of glasnost, a number of Soviet athletes have publicly complained about the distribution of money, and the Sports Committee has promised to revamp its pay scale in 1989. While continuing to pay virtually all of Bubka's apartment rent and giving him a monthly stipend of 400 rubles ($240), Petrov says, the committee will raise the price for a Bubka world record to the equivalent of $2,950; for an Olympic gold medal, $6,490; for victory in the World Championships and Goodwill Games, $4,720; and for a European championship win, $3,540. The $10,000 appearance fee will still slip into the Sports Committee's coffers. After all, Soviet officials remind you, they have paid for Bubka's coaching and equipment since he was 10.

Bubka did not wait for perestroika. At a competition in London a few years ago, after Sergei had clinched first place, the meet director asked him to attempt a world record. “For a car, yes,” the Soviet shot back.

Recently, when an American photographer asked Sergei to pose, Bubka responded with his own request. “Go to store,” he said. “Get beer for me, get 7Up, Pepsi-Cola, fruit juices and chocolate bars for my children.”


Well? Should he do it? the new father outside the clinic wonders. What if he were to miss Lillya's window and crash into the wall? Oh, such stupid rules! Did they expect a man to get on an airplane without ever having hugged his firstborn?

Vitaly, the child's name will be; not Nazar after Sergei's real father, but Vitaly, after the coach who seemed a truer one. To this day, the sergeant had never told his son that he pleased him. Who knows, though? People did say the old man was admitting it now to neighbors . . .

Bubka chews on his lip, sighs and at last turns away from the clinic. He will show his love another way, a special gift for his wife and baby.

Two days later in Paris, in July of 1985, he set the bar at six meters, a height European vaulters had long dreamed of, and geysered over it—the first man ever to do that.

“Sometimes I want to give up the pole vault,” he says, “and other times I cannot imagine living without it. I am like a candle. I am always burning. I have jumped six meters for the Europeans' happiness. I will jump 20 feet for the Americans' happiness.”

And his own? Now and then he comes across a picture of himself from that night, 6.00 lit up on the scoreboard just behind him, just a few days after he had become a father, just a few minutes after the most wondrous achievement of his life. He studies the face in that picture, wondering where, already, the happiness had fled.