How High? How Far? How Soon? As the 20-foot pole vault, 30-foot long jump and other milestones beckon, it's time to assess -- again -- the limits to performance

September 13, 1988

DUSTING OFF THE BOOK ON FORgettable achievements in athletic
scholarship, we find that in 1935 Brutus Hamilton, the respected
coach at Cal, came up with projections of man's ultimate performances
in track and field. According to Hamilton's calculations, under
perfect circumstances a man might someday pole- vault 15 ft. 1 in.,
run a mile in 4:01.66 and high-jump 6 ft. 11 1/4 in. -- but those
would be the limits. People of the time laughed at such outrageously
farfetched projections.
Think about that during the Seoul Games as you watch Sergei Bubka
of the Soviet Union (page 162) try to vault as high as 20 feet and
Patrik Sjoberg of Sweden slip over a crossbar set near or above eight
feet. A new generation of potential Roger Bannisters is upon us,
preparing to challenge once-unthinkable barriers, including several
that beckon athletes with seductively round numbers: not just the
20-foot pole vault and eight-foot high jump, but also the seven-foot
women's high jump and 2:20 women's marathon. The 30-foot men's long
jump, 60-foot triple jump and 9,000-point decathlon are other
milestones within reach if conditions are right.
Bannister always insisted that the daunting four-minute barrier in
the mile was just media hype. He had it in his head that he could run
faster than four minutes, and he did.
''The body doesn't know it has limits. It's your brain that screws
everything up,'' says Dwight Stones, a former high jump world-record
Interestingly, the milestones now being approached in the high
jump and pole vault are relatively meaningless to the athletes most
likely to reach them. That's because most countries don't think in
feet and inches, and all field event marks are now measured
metrically. To world high-jump champion Stefka Kostadinova of
Bulgaria, who holds the women's world record of 2.09 meters (6 ft. 10
1/4 in.), seven feet is just 2.14 meters. Yawn. Sjoberg and his
rivals see U.S. high jumpers often enough to know that eight feet is
a big deal in the States, but back home that's just 2.44 meters, two
centimeters above the world mark of 2.42 (7 ft. 11 1/4 in.) shared by
Sjoberg and West Germany's Carlo Thranhardt.
Bubka, on the other hand, takes pride in having demolished the
landmark six- meter (19 ft. 8 1/4 in.) barrier in 1985 and now
declares that he will jump 20 feet (6.10 meters) ''for the
Americans.'' U.S. vaulters haven't had much luck lately in claiming
such milestones: The 18-foot barrier fell to Christos Papanikolaou of
Greece in 1970, and Thierry Vigneron of France became the first over
19 feet in 1981.
To be sure, decades of technological and social advances have
helped athletes surpass one barrier after the next. Performances
would not have improved so rapidly without synthetic track and runway
surfaces (introduced in the early 1960s), starting blocks (which
replaced holes dug in the ground in the late '20s), five-ounce racing
spikes (a fraction of the weight of vintage- 1930 models),
foam-cushioned landing pads (which replaced pits of sawdust and
allowed high jumpers and vaulters to land on their backs), fiberglass
vaulting poles, weight training, computerized sports medicine, the
boom in women's participation and, sad to say, performance-enhancing
Physiologically, athletes haven't changed that much over the
years. That raises the question of how important psychology is in
this. Most athletes agree that mental barriers can hinder
performances. Stones recalls needing 64 tries to clear 7 ft. 7 in.
(2.31 meters) in the mid-1970s. ''For the longest time I couldn't
jerk 231 pounds in the weight room and I couldn't make 2.31
((meters)),'' he says. ''The 231 thing drove me crazy.'' Stones
finally made 7 ft. 7 in. when he had to jump it to avoid losing a
Barrier breakers tend to be positive thinkers. ''You have to see
yourself doing it,'' says triple jumper Willie Banks. ''If you can't
see it, you won't do it.'' Banks envisioned himself jumping 60 feet
at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis in July and ended up
soaring to a wind-aided 59 ft. 8 1/2 in. -- nine inches beyond his
1985 world record and just a heel's length from the magic 60-foot
barrier. ''Funny thing is, I had a similar vision before I set the
record in '85,'' he says.
Whether any important milestones will be achieved at the Olympics
-- where the emphasis will be on winning, and such factors as weather
and injury will come into play -- remains to be seen. Bubka, 24, who
raised his world record to 19 ft. 10 1/2 in. (6.06 meters) in July,
probably could jump 20 feet any day he chose. Up to this point he has
opted to improve the record a centimeter or two at a time, reportedly
because he collects a bonus from the Soviet government for each mark
he sets. ''He's slicing the bologna as thin as he can,'' says Stones.

Leading the assault on the eight-foot high jump meanwhile, will be
23-year- old Sjoberg, Thranhardt, 31, and West German Dietmar (Didi)
Mogenburg, 27, a cocksure trio who look alike, hang out together and
are known on the track circuit as the Three Musketeers.
''I know I can clear 2.44 meters if I have a perfect day,'' says
Sjoberg. ''It has to be good weather -- no wind, and warm. I like it
really warm.'' This wish is both psychological and physiological.
''It's been known for a long time that in explosive, power-type
activities like sprints and jumps, an athlete will perform better in
hot weather than in cold,'' says David Costill, director of the Human
Performance Lab at Ball State University, who explains that in high
temperatures the muscles are looser and the body's energy- delivering
systems function optimally.
Nothing short of a blizzard will stop the 5 ft. 11 in., 132-pound
Kostadinova, 23, from dominating her event in Seoul. ''I wouldn't say
the women are closing in on seven feet, I'd say Kostadinova is
closing in on seven feet,'' says U.S. Olympic high jumper Jim Howard.

Among others poised to break barriers, Bubka has apparently
already cleared 20 feet at least once, on his six-meter jump of 1985.
The bar just didn't happen to be set high enough at the time. And
long jumper Carl Lewis, another would-be barrier-breaker, may have
eclipsed 30 feet in Indianapolis in 1982, when he hit a colossal jump
that was never measured because it was thought, perhaps mistakenly,
to be a foul.
In analyzing that jump, biomechanist Gideon Ariel insisted it
couldn't have been 30 feet. ''To jump that far is impossible,'' he
said. ''The femoral bones would shatter. The ligaments connecting the
femorals and the tibial bones, between knee and ankle, would be torn.
The body just cannot hold up under that kind of pressure.''
Remember that if Lewis jumps 30 feet in the Olympic finals. And
don't be surprised if someday someone pole-vaults that high.