The two silver maples stood like sentinels in our backyard as they guarded the house with their interlocking canopies of green. During the brutal St. Louis summers when the heat and humidity would fight to reach 100F first (38C) – then stay the longest – the shade from those old squirrel-bearers represented the fringe ground of relief in a world bounded by torpor and sweat.
Strung at a height of around seven feet (2.13m) between the two trees ran a twisted rusty wire on which my mother used to hang potted flowers, part of the riot of colors she cultivated in our yard. But that old wire always represented something more to my agitated young mind than a tree-leveler or flower pot holder.
You see, I was a high jump enthusiast in my youth, just as I would become a running enthusiast in my adult years. So whether it was jumping up to touch the top of every door jamb I passed, hopping over the hedge mom had planted out front along the sidewalk, or paying a neighborhood kid a nickel to keep holding a broomstick for me to scissor over, my life was nothing but an extension of my athletic passions. On many a sweltering summer night as I lay open to the endless possibilities ahead, I dreamed of being able to leap over that wire in our backyard, because that was how high my heroes jumped.
During those growing years when athletes were still unseen giants of the imagination, two of my athletic heroes were Olympic high jumpers John Thomas of Boston, and his great rival Valery Brumel of the Soviet Union. Between the two of them Thomas and Brumel exchanged the high jump world record nine times in the early 1960s (six for Brumel, three for Thomas) as they battled for leaping supremacy when Olympic sport was a highly-charged subtext of the Cold War.
At the time, sports on television was still in its infancy, so whenever ABC’s Wide World of Sports came on, but especially when the USA vs. USSR dual track meets were shown, I’d sit in rapt attentive in front of our small black and white Magnavox TV to follow the Thomas-Brumel competitions. When hosted in the USA, the meet was staged in huge stadiums like the Los Angeles Coliseum. When the Russians played host, the massive Lenin Stadium in Moscow stood sinister in all its grainy Communist grayness. The sound of the huge crowds during the races was almost too great for our old Magnavox console TV speaker to transmit. But I hung on each and every lap and leap called by men like Jim McKay or Bud Palmer.
Often the highlight of the meet, the high jump competition would boil down to a showdown between John Thomas, the powerful young American with the neatly trimmed flat-top, and the transcendent Mr. Brumel, the smaller, but more agile leaper from the USSR.
In his blue U.S.A. singlet and white shorts Thomas would approach the bar with the coiling intensity of a great loaded spring. A mythic John Henry-like figure to me, he waited until he was directly beneath the bar before surging upward in a series of elongated body parts: the bold straight lead leg, the thrusting right arm. He would rise like a great airship rises from the tarmac, almost in slow motion, dragging, it seemed, the invisible chains of gravity that still clung to his sentient form. And as he rose, he carried with him the massed air around him, and with it my hopes for his and America’s supremacy, for athletics was presented as a surrogate for competing political forces.
Up, up, up he powered, like a huge opening hinge, rising seven feet plus in all until, cresting the bar, he would hold in a moment of suspended animation as the momentum of his rising once again would gather to his form from below. Then, with energy and form reanimate, he would pivot, wrapping himself, stomach-down around the bar – in the straddle technique of the day – before beginning his plummet earthward, his trail leg jutting skyward to punctuate the display while avoiding final contact with the black and white banded bar.
In those days before the back-first Fosbury Flop style of jumping was born, the landing pits consisted mostly of sand or sawdust. Thus, as Thomas fell, he did so from the full height of his leap. The chasm between the ground and the suspended bar yawned in its enormity, the conceit almost beyond comprehension.
And rather than the rhythmic clapping of today, the crowds back then sat hushed, as their breath held for a split-second, caught in stunned wonder at the magnitude of his achievement. Only upon his landing did they release their appreciation in an ovation which broke out in a rolling thunder through the stadium. It all had a sense of heightened reality about it, as if the moment had slowed, and with it the very spin of the earth, as it, too, acknowledged the accomplishment.
After the Thomas came the Russian Brumel. Smaller, faster, more purely athletic than his American counterpart, the dashing Russian approached the bar in a crescendo of speed, head cast down as if counting the nine quickening steps to the bar. With an elbows-out, wrists-relaxed assault he would lower imperceptibly with his penultimate step, then sweep his arms inward from below to focus his thrust as he flung his body upward!
Oh, how Brumel soared! With an all but insouciant ease his leap, turn and fall were of a piece, his hips opening to yogic proportions to avoid final conflict with the bar. Like an arc of red paint flying from the bristles of a brush, the majesty of his articulation was a thing of pure beauty. Balanchine, himself, never choreographed a more aesthetically pleasing physicality.
While John Thomas was the first man to clear 7’ indoors, and was favored to win the Olympic gold in Rome 1960 after setting the world record at the Olympic Trials at 7’3¾” (2.22 meters), I recall the crushing morning when I went to the front porch to pick up the St. Louis Globe Democrat, only to read ‘Thomas Takes Bronze in the High Jump’. Reading further I learned that my hero had been beaten by two Russians, Robert Shavlakadze, and Brumel.
For his part, Brumel would redeem his silver in Rome with the gold in Tokyo four years later. There he and Thomas would tie in height (2.18 m), with Brumel earning the Olympic title on count back, after both jumpers failed to clear 2.20m in a competition which lasted nearly five hours.
Eventually the great Russian jumped two-inches higher than his American rival, taking his PR to 7’5 ¾” (2.28 meters) in 1963, the year he was named ABC Wide World of Sports Athlete of the Year — Imagine 2011 IAAF World Champion high jumper Jesse Williams earning such recognition today.
Considering Brumel used the straddle technique, and often jumped off a hard dirt surface, his PR was a towering achievement for a man of only 6’1” (1.85m) in height. Thomas stood a full 3″ taller. I kept a picture of Brumel’s final world record leap caught at its apogee on the wall above my closet door for as long as I lived at my parent’s home.
Today, that same rusted wire strung between the two silver maples in our backyard in St. Louis is gone, dragged down with the passing of one of the two old trees in October 1999. Hollowed out by disease, it simply toppled over one morning beneath its own accumulated weight while I was on a visit from out of town. Men came and sawed up its fallen length and discarded the old rusted wire. A flowerbed marks the spot where the tree stump remains.
The great Brumel has fallen as well, in early 2003 after a long illness, though at the too-young age of 60. John Thomas continues to live near his hometown of Boston, even as a new American high jump star, Jesse Williams, carries forward the traditions of men like Dwight Stones, Charles Austin, Hollis Conway, and Jamie Nieto. Though at 6’1” Williams is built more along the athletic lines of Mr. Brumel than Mr. Thomas.
The Brumel-Thomas rivalry was the last of the great straddle-era duels, modern state warriors who shared much more through their athletics than any difference their skin or vest colors represented – think Lutz Long and Jesse Owens in the 1936 Munich Olympic long jump.
Others have come along over the years to best their marks. And the revolution of the Fosbury Flop’s back-first style of jumping in 1968 transformed the event. In doing so, however, it brought to a close the glory days of the high jump as well. For though the floppers may pass over greater heights than the straddlers, they do so in long, parabolic arcs, landing into a foam pit which stands three feet off the ground to cushion their unprotected, backward fall.
There is in the Flop technique, and its high-cushioned pit, a lack of the majesty and awe that attended the spiked leaps of those straddle-into-sawdust days. Perhaps with the exception of men like Franklin Jacobs and Stefan Holm, the short, but meteoric jumpers who cleared heights nearly two feet over their heads.
Maybe the difference also lies between a man’s perspective versus that of a boy’s, or the lack of political weight tied to athletics these days, or the absence of import once afforded by the spotlight of mainstream television coverage. For whatever reason, rarely is the high jump a marquee event anymore. The great jutting jumps of the straddlers John Thomas and Valery Brumel, the epiphany of their pivot, the sigh of an equally great fall into a soft pile of sawdust are all gone, consigned to the sands of time, but never from the glory of memory.
The sad fact is, the sport has such heroes today. It always has. What it doesn’t have are the same scale of stages on which to present them, nor the same wattage of spotlights to shine upon them to spark our children’s fertile imaginations. That’s what is both a shame and the crying need.