domingo, 20 de mayo de 2012

Echoes from a Magnificent Past

Yuriy Sedykh set the existing world hammer record back in 1986
        These are another times. Nowadays all the highlights in a track and field broadcasting are concentrated in the running events. In the last couple of years we have witnessed how East Africans have massively smashed the marathon standards, while Jamaican super star Usain Bolt continues with his impressive sprinting career. Now and then we have a glimpse of Isinbayeva’s or Vlasic’s performances but anyway jumpers and throwers are often forgotten in this highly marketable athletic world. Specially, the standouts of the hammer, who have not been included in the fashionable Diamond League, in the same way they were left out of the athletic Grand Prix before, feel particularly neglected, to the point they have manifested publicly their discomfort. (1) Relegated to compete hours before the official opening of the meetings or during the previous day, hammer throwers do not enjoy TV coverage and perform before a dozen of spectators or an empty stadium. Those circumstances prevent most of them from acquiring some public notoriety and having access to sponsors. If we ad the prizes for the winners in the parallel Hammer Throw Challenge are inferiors to the ones bestowed at the Diamond League, we can realise the athletes in the discipline who are able to make a living of their track and field earnings can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The rest must take a full or part time job, which hindrance their preparation for one of the most difficult events in track and field, which technical complexity rivals pole vault.
Those are some of the reasons why hammer throw is these days in plain decline. Old Koji Murofushi could still clinch gold in Daegu over contenders ten or fifteen years younger, while another illustrious veteran, Libor Charfreitag, triumphed at the 2010 European Champs, thanks to being the only one beyond 80m, just like Olympic champion Primoz Kozmus the precedent year in Berlin. Not long time ago, in Osaka 2007, there were still seven athletes over that barrier and five at the Olympic Games in Beijing. The two men who are more consistent in the 80m range, Krisztian Pars and Aleksey Zagorniy, lack stability when it matter most and this is also the case of upcoming stars who have to guarantee the succession in the specialty as Pavel Kryvitski.                 

Back in the 1970s and 1980s we knew an altogether different panorama, when the hammer throw event reached its peak and the two colossi of the specialty, Yuriy Sedykh and Sergey Livinov, offered us memorable duels. It was the time of the Cold War when the USSR and the USA were the two powerhouses in the world, contending in every matter from politics to culture and sport. The Soviet Union, despite the Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, eventually lost the Space Race when Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon in the summer of 1969. Nevertheless Soviets accomplished one of their most overwhelming triumphs over their archrivals with the highly successful development of the national school of hammer throwing, which swept the full Olympic podium in 1976, 1980, 1988 and 1992; and likely only boycott cut the streak in Los Angeles. Those sportive victories were a source for exultant patriotism and national pride inside the USSR.
Furthermore, Soviets were especially keen of mastering an event which had been ruled by Americans for a long time, particularly by the ones of Irish extraction, since the sport was for them an ancestral specialty, present in the Old Celtic Games, where competitors tossed rocks affixed to wood handles. (2) In the turn of the century, John Flanagan, a New York policeman, opened the streak with his three straight Olympic gold medals. In two of those occasions, in 1900 and 1904, The United States also won silver and bronze. Then Pat Ryan set a world record in 1913 which was going to last for 25 years. Then it came the Soviet era, announced by the universal bests of Mikhail Krivonosov in the mid-fifties, and the Olympic titles of Vasily Rudenkov in 1960 and Romuald Klim four years later.   

Sergey Litvinov, winner at the first World Championships and Olympic Games gold medallist in Seoul 1988
If nowadays’ hammer throwers lack support and sponsorship, it was not precisely the case in the time of Sedykh and Litvinov. The USSR invested its endeavours and huge amounts of money, looking for sportive success. To the remotest places in the country scouts were sent to spot talented youngsters, who were taught the rudiments of the discipline and then enrolled into the national system, under the promise of fantastic rewards as fancy cars, apartments in Moscow or travels to the West. (2) At the same time scientists were engaged in sport. Through this approach, the laws of mechanics were applied to the hammer throw, which technical execution became almost a mathematical equation. (3) Coaches were formed in those principles, among them the most prominent of all, Anatoly Bondarchuk.
Bondarchuk became the first man in throwing the implement beyond 75m back in 1969, and three years later crowned himself Olympic champion in Munich, when he was already in his thirties. However his biggest contribution to his country was in his role of national coach for the likes of Yuriy Sedykh, Sergey Litvinov and Juri Tamm. Still being an active athlete, Bondarchuk started in the mid-seventies in this task, introducing remarkable technical innovations, which brought the event to a new level. (4) In previous years newly manufactured implements, smooth-soled shoes and concrete circles had contributed to marks improvement. Now, with the addition of more efficient techniques, the 80m barrier seemed suddenly attainable and it was Boris Zaichuk the first athlete reaching the distance the 9th July 1978 in a meeting in Moscow.  “Average athletes in 1972 had no acceleration with the hammer,” states Bondarchuk in a recent interview. “Maybe this was because they had no special strength for hammer.  From 1970-1976, I believed the athlete (me specifically) needed to train maximal strength.  After this I recognized that the athlete only needed a base of strength.  Before I thought athletes would need a 300k full squat for 80-84 meters, now I know that they only need 200-250k quarter squat.  Before I thought athletes needed 150k+ snatch for 80-84 meters, now only need to snatch bodyweight for this throw.  Before I think maybe 3.50 standing long, now only need 3 -3.15 metres long.  This is because the specific throwing training has progressed over 30 years.  Now, I realize that the athlete does not need maximal strength but special dynamic strength.  Special strength is much more important and has a much higher rate of transfer into the specific throw.  In the 1960's, I had a friend that squatted 320k, cleaned 200k, had a fast 100m but only threw 17.20 in the shot put.  Later I realized that the maximal strength training does not have a high rate of transfer and my friend was one of many examples for this.” (5)  

             Anyway for Bondarchuk and the Soviet school there was not a universal method for training the hammer, a secret formula of success. Neither was a standardised way of technical performance in a competition. It depended on the characteristics of every athlete as proves the quite different approaches of Yuriy Sedykh and Sergey Litvinov, the foremost members of the golden age of Soviet hammer throwing.  
              Sedykh, born the 11th June 1955 in Novotcherkassk, Ukraine, did not enter sport until he was 12 years old. His first coach was Vladimir Volovik. Measuring 1,85m and weighting 109kg, he was neither the bigger nor the stronger of the hopeful hammer throwers in the country, but had instead a willingness and perseverance never seen before by Volovik. (6) He also owned a stunning coordination of movements: he understood his body and knew how to obtain the maximum efficiency of it. Enrolled by the Soviet Army, it was with his first coach that Sedykh developed his famous technique, arguably the best of its time, which was simply a practical development of the law of inertia: Yuriy just pushed the ball left and let the hammer turn him, to execute what he called “the dance.” Also, thanks to his speed inside the circle and technical perfection, he had enough with three rotations, instead of the usual four. In 1973, Sedykh joined in Kiev Olympic champion Anatoly Bondarchuk, now in charge of new duties. The future hammer throw guru, as he recognises, did not think, the first time he saw Yuriy, he owned the conditions to send one day the implement beyond 86 metres, but soon realised his new pupil was once-in-a-lifetime talent: “He took only six months to adjust to training, after which technical development can begin. Lots of athletes need three, four, even five years." (2) In only one year working with Bondarchuk, Sedykh had already beaten the world junior record and being only 21 he clinched the gold medal at Montreal Olympics, beating experienced compatriots Aleksey Spiridonov and coach Bondarchuk. In an event which requires years of practise to acquire a consistent technique and usually athletes do not fight the Olympic title until they are in their thirties, Sedykh, thanks to his capacities, won it still being nearly a newcomer.   
            Sergey Litvinov, born the 23rd January 1958 in Tsukurova Balka, Krasnodar Krai, only stood 1,78m. He was however the best prospect physically speaking of the Soviet school, back in the 1970s. While still many current  hammer throwers base their training in lifting weights in order to achieve maximal strength, USSR athletes soon realised the event do not require brute-force but explosive energy. Litvinov was quoted to alternate in training weightlifting and 400m runs to acquire his mighty explosiveness. Also in plain contrast with discus or shot put specialties, where upper-body strength is build up in the gym, hammer taxes core muscles which can only be developed with constant throwing. After thousands and thousands of tosses in training, Litvinov became as powerful athlete as Montreal Olympic champion Yuriy Sedykh. Yet, contrary to his archrival, Sergey performed the traditional four rotations and his technique consisted in uniformly accelerating the hammer.  

              It was precisely the intense rivalry of Sedykh and Litvinov for a whole decade which raised the hammer throw to stratospheric levels never reached again in the history of the event. Three years older than his long time contender, the former arrived first. After his victory in Montreal, Sedykh grabbed the first of three straight European titles in 1978; then smashed the world record in May 1980 in Leselidse in a hardly fought contest against Juri Tamm. Just one week afterwards, Litvinov made his breakthrough in the international scene, improving that record in more than one metre (81.66m). Nevertheless, when it mattered most, Sedykh dominated overwhelmingly the hammer final, defended his Olympic title and recovered the universal record in Moscow (81.80), over challengers Litvinov and Tamm. Almost perfect technically and able to perform to his best in every big occasion, Yuriy usually got the better of Sergey, who was not as good to hold the pressure and lacked consistency in major championships. The two times Olympic champion produced another easy victory at the 1982 Europeans. However, Litvinov stroke back, in a big upset at the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki, just some months after breaking the 84-meter barrier. Both absent in Los Angeles Olympic Games, where Finn Juha Tiainen won the gold, throwing just over 78 metres, the marvellous duo delivered yet another sensational clash in Cork, Ireland, that year. In the historical hometown of hammer throwing, the lucky spectators had the pleasure to witness what was arguably the best competition ever in the discipline. No less than five times the world record was smashed that day by either Sedykh or Litvinov, until the former got to win the contest with a last throw of 86.34m. Two years later at the European Champs in Stuttgart came a last improvement by Yuriy, who set the still existing record (86.74), beating Litvinov (85.74) and Igor Nikulin (82.20) in the process. That evening the winner averaged 85.78m in his six throws in the final. Litvinov defended his world title in Rome, in a competition without Sedykh and also got the better of his lifelong rival at the Olympic Games in Seoul. Age seemed to be taking its toll in Yuriy but he still got some energy left to grab his first gold medal at a World Championships in Tokyo 1991, before passing the baton to Andrey Abduvaliyev.                

               After retirement, both Sedykh and Litvinov have continued in hammer throwing through coaching. After the collapse of the USSR, Yuriy went to live to France, where he took in charge the Racing Club de Paris athletes. On the other hand, Sergey has been training with sensational success Belarus throwers, including Ivan Tsikhan, Vadim Devyatovski and female Olympic champion in Beijing Aksana Miankova. Tsikhan, whose physical constitution and explosiveness can be easily related to his coach’s, came tantalisingly close to Sedykh's world record in 2005, missing it by just 1 centimetre. Interestingly Litvinov’s son is currently an accomplished hammer thrower and also is Sedykh’s teen daughter Alexia, who under French flag won the gold medal at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. Finally, hammer guru Anatoly Bondarchuk shows no symptoms of tiredness, four decades after he began coaching. Nowadays his current residence is in British Columbia, Canada, and his teachings have been decisive in the exploits of shot put silver medallist in Daegu Dylan Armstrong, Sultana Frizell, who recently broke the national record and the 75m barrier, and the last American over 80 metres, Kibwe Johnson.                    

Yuriy Sedykh in company of her wife Natalya Lisovskaya and daughter Alexia

viernes, 27 de abril de 2012

The Man who Set 35 World Records

Sergey Bubka, the most outstanding pole vaulter ever

             What is for you the biggest athletic feat of the 20th Century? Maybe it happened that evening in Mexico City when Bob Beamon remained hanged in the air and stopped the time for a moment before landing 8.90m beyond the board, that is 55cm more than the previous world record. Well, can you imagine Beamon, instead of being overwhelmed for the huge dimension of his own superhuman jump, surpassing some years later the mythic 9-metre barrier? And then remaining consistent in such distance to the point of jumping throughout his career, let us say 44 times over 9 metres? Talking about the present, everybody agree no athlete in the circuit is as dominant as Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. He is so much in his own class he could allow himself to slow down in the last stages of the 100m final in Beijing Olympics, once he had secured his victory, and still broke the world record in the distance. Now his personal best are mighty impressive: 9.58sec in the 100m and 19.19sec in the 200m. Yet have you ever wonder how fast would he run with a pole of 5.11m and 100kg in his hands? For the moment Bolt has set thrice the universal best in the king of the athletic events and twice in the half-lap. Not bad for specialties which have been run for the likes of Carl Lewis or Michael Johnson. Yet would it be fair to ask the Jamaican ace for the good health of track and field to smash his unbelievable marks still a couple of times more, let us say another 30 brand new records, before he decides enjoy the Caribbean sun full time, together with a pair of beauties and a  barrel of rum? You can say I am too much demanding and unrealistic but back in 1983, when Sergey Bubka made his first appearance in an international senior competition, nobody could pretend a human would clear one day the impossible height of 6 metres with the help of a fibreglass pole. No way, someone would do it 44 times all along his athletic career; just like an astronaut who felt so delighted with his trip to the moon he travels back every day. Bubka did all this and more. Centimetre by centimetre, the Ukrainian high flier would be getting closer and closer to the stars until he reached 6.15 indoors in his 34th record and 6.14 outdoors in his 35th. Those heights seem nearly 20 years afterwards as unattainable for anybody else as they were in its time. In Sergey Bubka’s long reign, his competitors had enough with fighting for the silver medal and witness in awe the prowess of the king of the clouds. Nobody, believe it, showed ever such superiority inside a track and field stadium. Just say if you are looking for the most outstanding athlete of the 20th Century this one could be your man. 

                     Everything started the 14th August 1983 at the inaugural World Championships in athletics in Helsinki. For the first time since 1972 Munich Olympic Games there was not any sort of boycott, so every athlete who meant something in the track and field international field was there to confront the best in the world. Only a few injured as Sebastian Coe missed the contest. The Champs were so thrilling and successful many wondered why it took so much time to hold the first edition. Helsinki was the beginning of a stellar career for the likes of Carl Lewis and Heike Drechsler. Edwin Moses was there to keep going his amazing winning streak at the 400m hurdles which dated back from 1977 and also was controversial decathlete Daley Thompson. Steve Cram clinched gold in a high class 1500m over Scott, Aouita and Ovett, while Alberto Cova won the 10.000m for Italy thanks to his devastating kick. Among the girls, Marita Koch, short of preparation, only lined up in the 200m, so Jarmila Kratotchvilova enjoyed her chance emulating Alberto Juantorena, after completing the 400m-800m double, besides getting to dip in the former distance for the first time under 48sec. The first World Championships meant the biggest moment of glory for Mary Decker, before her infamous fall in Los Angeles Olympics, with resounding victories over the Soviet Union athletes at the 1500m and 3000m. Finally, for the first time in a global contest the women were running the longest of the athletic events, with the presence of Grete Waitz, the female who won nine times the New York City marathon. In such special full of marvellous champions competition, the surprising victory of that young Soviet at the pole vault passed almost unnoticed. However it was a quite remarkable one.         

Sergey Bubka competing at the 1983 World Championships
     All 27 entrants were meeting in the final, after the qualifying round had to be cancelled because of heavy rains. (1) The weather had not improved much: scaring winds of up to 20km/h had made become the outing a truly adventurous one. Anyway, a truly classy field was up for the challenge, so much to choose from: the last two Olympic champions Tadeusz Slusarski and Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz of Poland; the world record holders both outdoors (Vladimir Polyakov) and indoors (Billy Olson); the other athlete who had jumped 5.80 and also several times record breaker, Thierry Vigneron; his compatriots in a formidable team, the experienced Patrick Abada, and the man who was going to win the gold Olympic medal in Los Angeles, Pierre Quinon; the silver medallist in Moscow Olympic Games, Konstantin Volkov; and some other solid competitors as American Mike Tully and Atanas Tarev from Bulgaria. In spite of their pedigree, not everybody had the courage that day to face the awkward climatic conditions and the nerves of steel to endure the pressure of a contest which lasted seven hours. Olson, Tully and Quinon were unable to produce any valid jump and Vigneron, Kozakiewicz and Polyakov could only clear 5.40. With also Abada and Slusarki eventually out, three men were in contention for the medals in 5.70: red-hot favourite Volkov, European bronze medallist Tarev and little-known Sergey Bubka. Unexpectedly, the only one over the bar was that 19-year-old debutant, who owned the merit of having booked a spot in the strong Soviet team, but no one had taken him in consideration acknowledging the constellation of stars who had gathered for that pole vault final. However, as young and inexperienced as he was, Bubka had the courage to defy the wind and had the nerves of steel to keep focus and determination throughout that long and chilly evening. Specialists point out one of the main qualities which made Bubka a great champion was his recklessness. He proved it already that very first time under those dreadful conditions.    
Pierre Quinon and Thierry Vigneron with Coach Jean Claude Perrin in L.A.

     Actually everything started many years before. (2) Gavril Reyewski was a veteran of World War I who had ended his campaign prematurely, after receiving a German bullet in his neck. Years later he decided to overcome his disability, focusing his hopes and endeavours in create a school of champions in pole vaulting in Donetsk. One day he received the visit of a restless young man called Vitaly Petrov. The new pupil had had a troublesome childhood. His father died in World War II and everything went wrong for him until he finished up in a reformatory. When he went out of it, Petrov decided to leave his village and move to the big town of Donetsk for a change. Then he joined Reyewski’s school and pole vaulting was a mean for him to sort his life out. Petrov was not an outstanding athlete but, when he retired, he chose the way of coaching and in this profession he would become a legend. One day he received the visit of an uneasy young man as he was once. His name was Sergey Bubka. Since the very first time they met, Vitaly knew he was not like the other trainees he had had before.  "From all points of view, Sergey was the most unordinary boy I met in life. When he was only 12 years old and made his first jumps with a metallic pole I was sure that he was going to be a leading athlete in the world and achieve record heights.” (3)  
         Sergey Bubka was born the 4th December 1963 in Voroshilovgrad, a bleak coalmine city, which is the current Luhanks in Ukraine. His father was a sergeant in the Soviet army and her mother worked as a medical assistant in a hospital. As a kid, Sergey had the ability to irritate all the time his strict father with his behaviour. (2) As for example, his mates remember how he won a bet being the one who kept his head longer into a barrel full of water or the day he was hanging from a tree branch for hours. On the other hand, those “genialities” are also a good indication since his early days Bubka did not know fear and had a peculiar strength. Sergey also loved sports which was another reason to argue with his progenitors, who did not share their son’s leanings. The future pole vaulter had a ferocious competitive spirit in football or street hockey. Because of his special speed and coordination Sergey was selected for special coaching in gymnastics. Then his friend Slava introduced him to pole vaulting. Bubka liked it and started to practise the sport since he was 11, assisted by Vitaly Petrov, and also did his brother Vasily, who was three years his elder. Under the disapproval of their parents, both siblings decided to move, along with Petrov, to Donetsk in 1978 to enjoy the facilities of the Olympic Centre. Pupil and coach would stay together for some fruitful 16 years. In the beginning Petrov set an amazing method: “The strategy of my coach and me was that we looked at pictures of all the best pole vaulters from around the world, and we took the best parts from them, and we created a person that had never existed. We then started to work toward being such a person. Through this we improved techniques and in the end had good results.” (4) Much has been written about the intensive training to increase the already considerable speed and strength of Bubka and made him become a super athlete. Yet the vaulter pointed out it was gradual. In any way Petrov wanted to burn up phases but instead was planning a long-term career, setting the drills according with the natural development of his charge’s locomotive system and for example did not introduce weightlifting until he was sixteen. (2) Bubka’s first mark we know was 2.70. As he was 13-year-old, he jumped 3.50 and at 14 he cleared 4.40. Soon after winning the national junior championship of combined events in 1980, he was able of producing a leap of 5.10 in his first pole vault official competition in Sochi. It proved he had a bright future in the event before him. However, his first competition out of Russia, at the 1981 European juniors in Utretch was somewhat a disappointment, after he only could reach a 7th place. Anyway, Bubka’s quick rise to the elite continued in the following seasons, until he obtained a noteworthy second place at the national championship in 1983, which bounded him to Helsinki Worlds.

Michael Jordan eyed the 17-foot pole suspiciously, as if it might suddenly spring to life and jab him with an elbow.
"Where do you hold it, Sergei?"
"Almost at the top," said Sergei Bubka. He jumped to his feet, took the pole from Jordan and grasped it at the end. "Like this."
"Man, it's long," said Jordan. "Hey, maybe we could use it for the dunk contest. Give it some spice." He hefted it. "Must be heavy to run with," he said. "You ever break one when you were vaulting?"
"Oh, several times," said Bubka, nodding his head.
"You get hurt?" Jordan asked.
"Well, when you do it well, nothing will go wrong," said Bubka.
Jordan smiled. "I can tell you this, Sergei," he said. "That's not true in basketball."

Sports Illustrated, “Air Jordan meets Air Bubka” , July 1992  (5)

Due to the Soviet Block-induced boycott, Sergey Bubka could not participate at the 1984 Olympic Games. The sadly gone Pierre Quinon enjoyed his chance to clinch the title over Americans Mike Tully and Earl Bell and team mate Thierry Vigneron. However, the pole vaulter from Luhanks had set seven world records during the season, raising the standards to 5.94m outdoors, which was 19cm more than Quinon’s winning jump. Still Billy Olson and Vigneron tried to keep the challenge, regaining their records several times. Notably the French athlete improved it to 5.91m in a memorable face-to-face during the Golden Gala meeting, just to see Bubka flying over 5.94m some minutes later. Yet, by the end of 2005, the USSR athlete had already broken the 6m barrier at the Stade de France. That meant 17cm of improvement over the universal mark in only two years. Then he progressed indoors to 5.97m. Every athlete of his generation was done, including all the members of the most outstanding French school of pole vaulting in history. Quinon was left behind in 5.90m, Vigneron in 5.91m, and Collet in 5.94; while Olson’s all-time PB would be 5.93 and Joe Dial’s 5.96. The man who was predestined to reign in the specialty for many years, Konstantin Volkov, could not jump higher than 5.85 and Polyakov remained in his old record of 5.81m, now become obsolete.  In major championships the event followed similar trend. Bubka confirmed in the winter of 1985 his victory in Helsinki, winning with ease the European Champs indoors, then the first of his four titles at the newly introduced World indoor Championship. The following season he added to his curriculum the European outdoors, over his brother Vasily, and one year later defended his Summer World title in Rome, before becoming Olympic champion in Seoul with a 5.90m jump, making an all-Soviet podium with new wonders Rodion Gataullin and Grigory Yegorov.  

The rest of the vaulters felt useless and disarmed before such overwhelming rising of the young star from Luhanks. “You see him do something like that and you almost want to give up the event.” (6), said Dan Ripley, who had been world indoor record holder in 1979, reaching the then respectable height of 5.63. Volkov just referred to his compatriot as “Superman.” Olson was startled the day he first beheld Bubka's 17-foot cannon. "When I saw him with that pole I said 'Whoa! Is he really going to plant that thing?' Then he planted it and went sailing up in the air like a helium balloon." (6) Unlike in other athletic events where an implement is used, as shot put, javelin or discus, in pole vault there is an absolute freedom about length, weight, calibre of the pole and materials used in its fabrication. The only condition is it must be smooth. First the implement was built up in wood; then bamboo was believed more convenient. Nowadays, fibreglass is the fashion. Bubka competed with UCS Spirit poles, made exclusively by him in the United States, which were implements much more rigid than the ones used by his competitors and also longer. He carried poles from 5.11m to 5.29m, which is the longest ever used on an athletic track, with a stiffness of 225 pounds (102kg) and a calibre of 11.2. This kind of stick can only be bent for someone with the colossal power and arm-strength the Ukrainian champion had. “With the poles I use the rest of the vaulters would kill themselves. They would be unable of bending them, so they would not reach the mat but slam their head into the ground. Even me, I can only use them when I am in great shape.” (7) For additional leverage Bubka also gripped the pole higher than anybody else.

Bubka's muscles of steel in action
Photo: Mike Powell/ All Sport/ Getty Images

Pole vault is arguably the most difficult technically speaking athletic event and the one which demand in its practitioner the mastering of more different skills. Thus Sergey Bubka was an accomplished gymnast who could compete in the high bar with his Olympic friend Dmitry Bilozertchev. Bubka never gave up the daily practise of gymnastics since he was a little kid and it contributed to his upper body strength and also gave him flexibility and agility for the part in the air of his pole vaulting. His training sessions were also full of weightlifting and multi-jumping of all kind of obstacles. Overall, he could long jump nearly 8 metres and was clocked 10.2 in the 100m. Most important of all he could maintain this speed (35.7km/h) throughout his 22 strides with a pole in his hand, until the moment of planting it and take-off. The confluence of all this astounding qualities of superior speed, power, strength, coordination and agility in a single athlete made a big difference in the decisive moment of propelling this 80kg man over a 6m high bar, with those especially mighty UCS Spirit poles. Besides, the Petrov/Bubka model they created is superior to many others today because it allows the vaulter to continuously put energy into the pole while rising towards the bar. While most of the conventional models focus on heavy planting of the pole to the landing pad to create maximum bend in the pole even before they leave the ground, the Petrov/Bubka model concentrates on driving the pole up rather than bending it while planting it. While the traditional models depended on the recoil by bending the pole, the Petrov/Bubka model could exploit the recoil of the pole and exert more energy on the pole during the swinging action. (8) In the words of Hans Ruf, who was the coach of Spanish bronze medallist at Barcelona Olympics Javier García Chico “the difference is he is the only one who profits the energy which offers the recoil of the pole. Only Bubka arrives to the bar height with the pole still bent and this allows him to be propelled like a rocket. Once he gets up he does not need to do anything just to let go with the flow.” (7)  Finally, Ruf also unveils another decisive factor which makes the Ukrainian ace an outstanding champion, related with his impressive personality: “Bubka takes the highest risks. He throws his head down and adopts a vertical position in the same propulsion phase. Only a man with his courage can have the nerve to do such a thing.” (7)

The Olympic champion in Barcelona, Maksim Tarasov
     Another remarkable figure about Sergey Bubka is his longevity. The Ukrainian standout buried up every foremost pole vaulter of his generation and still had energy left to keep beating the upcoming athletes of the new one. In 1989 Rodion Gataullin raised the eyebrows when he became the second man over 6 metres and the first one to do it indoors. The vaulter from Tashkent also defeated the world number one several times the following season, including at the Summer European championsips in Split, where Bubka had the hindrance of an ankle injury. In a few years there was a bunch of upcoming athletes consistent over 5.90 and also some of them able to clear 6.00m. Gataullin achieved it seven times in his career and also did world junior record holder Maksim Tarasov. Many of the newcomers, strongly influenced by Bubka’s feats, came from the Soviet Union: Gataullin, Tarasov, Yegorov, Potapovich, Ryzhenkov, Trandenkov, Bochkaryov… Yet there were also some excellent pole vaulters coming from other countries as Jean Galfione, Istvan Bagyula, Okkert Brits, Lawrence Johnson and Dean Starkey. Answering to the challenge of these talented youngsters, Sergey Bubka overcame his unfortunate 1990 year and for the new season raised again his standards to his best ever. During the winter, Bubka grabbed the World indoor title, jumping 6.00m during the competition. The 15th Mars he went on to clear 6.10m in San Sebastián, thus overcoming the historic 20 feet barrier; then increased his record to 6.12m. During the summer he continued in the same impressive form, setting four more universal best, the last of them being 6.10m. At the World Championships in Tokyo, he got to clear 5.95 to clinch his third title, over Bagyula and Tarasov. Overall he surpassed 6.00m no less than 10 times and accomplished 25 victories out of 27 competitions in 1991, which was arguably the best year of his stuning career. (1)
Notwithstanding, Bubka suffered a severe set back at Barcelona Olympic Games where he failed to clear the bar at his initial height of 5.70. Maksim Tarasov enjoyed his chance to win a marvellous gold medal. Bubka always played that psychological game of starting his competitions at such respectable heights as 5.70, when most of his rivals had been eliminated. Yet it was undoubtedly a risk too. For one reason or another, Bubka was really unlucky in the Olympic Games. In the following edition in Atlanta, where Jean Galfione brought back the title to France, he could not even make a single jump due to an Achilles tendon inflammation and he was maybe too old for his last participation in Sidney. In all, the best pole vaulter in the history of the discipline could only accomplish one Olympic title, the one in Seoul. However, at the World Championships he followed up with his winning streak in Stuttgart-93, Goteborg-95 and Athens-97, for an amazing figure of six straight titles. He clinched gold every time he entered the contest and it is mighty impressive to point out that, 14 years after the first edition of the World Championships in Athletics, he was still the only champion in the pole vault event. At that time he had largely overcome the mark of 22 official world records, which made Flying Finn Paavo Nurmi the most accomplished record breaker in modern history of track and field. Eventually, he set his last universal indoor best at 6.15 in Donetsk in 1993 and the last outdoors at 6.14 in Sestrières one year later, which was his 35th world record overall. Despite so many highlights all over his career, there was always some kind of excitement for the pole vaulting legend. “Every record is special in its own way. Each one takes place in a different day, under different conditions, surrounded by different emotions.” (2) Bubka never accepted the concept of limits and claims he would had cleared 6.20m, had not been annoyed by injuries in the last stages of his career. Indeed, the Ukrainian reportedly jumped over a bar raised to 6.37m in training. 

Fabiana Murer is the fourth pole vault world champion guided by Vitaly Petrov
In the early nineties, Bubka quit Vitaly Petrov, the man who brought him to the top, and moved his residence to Berlin, where he was almost self-coached. Freed from his responsibility with Sergey, Petrov decided to look for new challenges too. He accepted an offer to prepare Italian pole vaulters and it was a resounding success: in 2003 one of his charges, Giuseppe Gibilisco won the gold medal at the World Champs in Saint Dennis. Nowadays Petrov’s name is associated with the high performance centre of Formia. The likes of Monika Pyrek, Yelena Isinbayeva or Fabiana Murer have joined him there. The experience of the two times Olympic champion with the reputed coach was kind of a disaster in the five years they were working together. Isinbayeva’s inability to adapt to Petrov’s method brought to her well-known crisis and return to Russia and former coach Trofimov. On the other hand, Murer has not ceased to improve under Vitaly. After winning the World indoor championship in 2010, the Brazilian athlete went on to climb to the top of the podium also outdoors in Daegu, thus becoming the 4th Petrov’s charge in doing so in this contest. Now Murer aims for her first Olympic title and would also like to be the second woman ever over 5.00m. For the current world champion, Bubka is her inspiration and knows everything about him. (9) For example she remembers how determined he was from the beginning, when he left home and his family so young to move to Donetsk with Petrov. Murer had the chance to go for a stage to the same Ukrainian centre his idol used to train. However, as she argues, now heating is available while Sergei had to make for one month and a half a year his workouts at -30ºC. The six times world champion had to rolled himself into a blanket, then go out for two jumps and return to his blanket for getting some heat. Murer’s rival, Yelena Isinbayeva, also has Bubka as her role model in almost everything. Just like her hero, she is the fastest, strongest and the best technically speaking of the whole female field. Also she improves her world records centimetre by centimetre, likes round figures and enters the competition when most of her rivals are out at 4.70m, which seems very close to Bubka’s 5.70m.
In his competitive years Bubka was either criticized or admired for being a communist who easily embraced capitalist fancy. Thus he used to beat his records by narrow margins just to enjoy bonuses for each time he accomplished one. Also there was talk about his expensive cars, his $2 million apartment in Montecarlo and his troubles with the mafia. (10) Nowadays this image is almost gone. He is most remembered as a man who proclaimed with pride his Ukrainian alignment in a time the USSR was still in the peak of its power. In the context of a strongly centralised sport in Moscow, he took an initiative to develop pole vaulting in his adopted town of Donetsk. He created a sports club there, investing his own money, with the collaboration of his sponsor Nike, in facilities, equipment and coaches to give a chance to Ukrainian youngsters to access the practise of track and field. He also launched a pole vault meeting in Donetsk which today attires the best men and women in the discipline. (9) Now Sergey Bubka is a member of the IOC, head of the Ukrainian Olympic Committee and IAAF Vice-President. Two decades afterwards his records stand out of reach for the rest of pole vaulters. Bubka still owns 23 out of 26 jumps in the history of the event over 6.05m or higher. He acknowledges the quality of current specialists of the discipline as Steve Hooker, who was the first man daring to attempt Sergey’s world record before being sidelined by recurring injuries, Renaud Lavillenie or Pawel Wojciechowski. Yet the best pole vaulter ever states nobody is able for the moment to take profit of the technique he and Vitaly Petrov introduced. Bubka believes today it might be possible to jump optimizing this technique over 6.30m or 6.40m. However it will not be easy to find again another athlete with the amazing qualities of Sergey Bubka for the pole vault discipline, good enough to target such impressive heights. 

Sergey Bubka clears the bar for another record
Photo: Associated Press 

T&FN: What do you think the ultimate height in the pole vault might be?  Six metres?
Kozakiewicz (laughs): No, I don’t think that high. In the next 10 years I think someone will jump 5.90. Maybe a new material for poles would help someone go higher, but not for many years. I would like to jump 5.80 one day. That would be all for me.

Track & Field News Interview: Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz, February 1981  (11)

sábado, 21 de abril de 2012

When did Cuba become a Powerhouse in Athletics

The team that won the silver medal for Cuba at the 4x100m event in Mexico Olympic Games. From L to R: Enrique Figuerola, Pablo Montes, Juan Morales and Hermes Ramírez
                In the inaugural Pan American Games in Buenos Aires in 1951, the athlete from Camagüey Rafael Fortún became the first Cuban gold medallist in the history of the contest when he sensationally completed a double victory in the sprint events. However at his return home he did not receive any honourable mention. Instead, he was sacked from his job in the Ministry of Public Works, because of his absence, during the days he competed in Buenos Aires. Disgruntled, Fortún was about to leave Cuba and move to Puerto Rico but his neighbours organised a collection, thus getting to buy a house for the Pan American champion’s parents. Such was the talk about Fortún case inside the country, in the end he was reinstated by the government in his job and even promoted. (1) It was also through collection and raffle initiatives the talented sprinter could make the trip to London 1948 and Helsinki 1952 Olympic Games. He failed to achieve any international acclaim there. Nevertheless, he was one of the best sprinters of the world in his time. Besides his double gold medal in Buenos Aires, Fortún won the 100m at the Central American Games no less than three times in a row, and those marvellous victories were accomplished beating solid competition by the likes of Olympic medallists Herb McKinley of Jamaica and Lloyd LaBeach of Panama. Sadly, poverty and scant interest from authorities to the development of sport prevented the Camagüey-born to fulfil all the immense potential for track and field he had inside of him. Things have really changed since.
            Rafael Fortún was not however the first Cuban sprinter of world level. Though the first Olympic champion of the country had been fencer Ramón Fonst, soon the biggest island in the Caribbean Sea excelled in boxing and track and field, notably sprints. Pepe Barrientos was the lone Cuban participating in Amsterdam 1928. The athlete known as “El relámpago del Caribe” got to ran the 100m in 10.2. Though accomplished under no-legal wind conditions, the mark speaks about the level of that runner, who would die at 41 in a plane flight and gives name to the most important meeting in the annual Cuban athletic calendar. Barrientos' heir was Jacinto Ortiz, who had an unforgettable duel against local star Reginald Bedford at the Central American Games held in Panama in 1938, the day after both clocked 10.3 at the 100m, which was just one tenth short of the universal record of the immortal Jesse Owens. This mark would stand for 22 years until Enrique Figuerola improved it in 1960. Yet Ortiz and the rest of Cuban athletes could not even travel to the 1936 Olympic Games, due to internal political instability and bankruptcy, and he had not any further Olympic chance when World War II began. In those years Ortiz would make a living through baseball and, amazingly, also racing horses as his contemporary Owens did. Thus he was another talent lost in a time misery, illiteracy, corruption and lack of government care made the best athletes give up prematurely their track and field career to try professional baseball and boxing.   

Olympic legend Alberto Juantorena, a firm believer in the Cuban Revolution

            The triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 would change altogether this disheartening panorama in national track and field. Through his famous slogan “Sport for the people,” Commandant Fidel Castro put the means to ensure everybody, even the most impoverished families, had access to the practice of sport, as a part of his program in search of a strong development of health and education inside the country. Castro, in the same way than his allies from the Communist block, believed in the virtues of sport as instrument for welfare and culture. He also dreamed like the USSR and East Germany in help become his country a sportive powerhouse to show the world the positive effect of the Revolution among Cuban people. Many of the most celebrated athletes as boxer Teófilo Stevenson and Alberto Juantorena were and still are earnest supporters of those ideas of their leader. Thus the latter states he would have never been able to become an Olympic champion, not even to develop an international track and field career, without those enthusiastic sport endeavours from Cuban government, as he came from a family, in which the father was often unemployed. (2) Juantorena has never stopped running, even after his retirement, because sport is quality of life, an excellent use of spare time, contributes to keep good physical health and optimal state of mind, to keep the person young. So he has instilled it to his children and now his son is a professional decathlete who participated at the 2007 World championships in Osaka. The double Olympic champion in Montreal points out it is important to be aware every victory is the consequence of a common project not just the success of an individual, so the medals must be shared with the people, with every citizen involved in the development of the athlete, in the building of Cuba. (3)      

                   In the 1960s Cuba drew up a program to spread the practise of sport all over the country and develop the teaching of it at grassroots levels, which is still the envy of many athletic powerhouses around the world. (4) In 1961 was created the INDER (Instituto Nacional de Deporte, Educación Física y Recreación) to administer sport in the country and set the planning for its development. Firstly, the INDER launched sportive facilities even in the most remote spots in the island, and organised quite a number of popular initiatives in order to stimulate mass involvement in sport. Secondly there were established the conditions to allow children to develop progressively their athletic potential. (5) Sport is in the core of Cuban educational system: Children devote up to six hours a week to it. They are encouraged to be exposed to at least three different recreational activities, because at these early ages it is not still important specialization. Kids run, jump and throw just to have fun, acquire general coordination and develop a right use of the locomotive system. Young talents join the EIDE (Escuelas de Iniciación Deportiva), where they have the opportunity of excellent technical training. The country dispose of no less than 1600 track and field coaches and 78.000 physical education teachers involved in the program, formed at the ESEF (Escuela Superior de Educación Física). (4) Central to this system are National School Games, where upcoming athletes have exposure to challenging competition. The most outstanding kids will continue their sportive formation at one of the fifteen ESPA (Escuelas de Perfeccionamiento Atlético), which exist in the country, where they also resume their academic teaching. Food, accommodation, books and clothing are provided by the government. Facilities are humble: grass tracks, rudimentary throwing circles and even two sticks in the ground with a rope around to make a hurdle. Yet two or three tough sessions are assured daily under world-class coaches. The best among the best athletes will end up in the national team. 

Enrique Figuerola strucks gold for Cuba at the 1966 Central American Games in Puerto Rico
             The USSR helped decisively in the development of sport in Cuba through donations of 5000-10.000 millions of dollars every year from the 60s to the 80s. (6)  As it happened in Ethiopia as well, Cubans benefited from exchanges with the Soviet Block.   Cuban coaches received formation in the USSR or East Germany schools and athletes assisted to camps and competed in those countries meetings. Also coaches and sport doctors from Eastern European nations travelled to Cuba and took in charge the development of track and field, boxing, gymnastics, volleyball, basket ball and any other sport. Thus Zygmunt Zabierzowski trained Juantorena, Enrique Figuerola was guided by Vladimir Puzzio and Miguelina Cobián by no less than Emil Zatopek. On the other hand, professional competitions in sports as boxing or baseball, which were under the influence of the USA, entered in contradiction with the new conception of sport and were eventually banned inside the national territory. Soon Cuba becomes the number two at the Pan American Games, only inferior to their powerful US neighbours’ prowess. At the Olympics, the Caribbean country progress steadily during the 1960s decade and obtain its first visible triumphs in Munich, when three boxers, including Teófilo Stevenson, win gold, after a 68-year-drought. Then in Montreal-76 the visits to the top stop of the podium increase to six and in Moscow-80 to eight. In Barcelona-92, Cuba has culminated its escalade, achieving 14 gold medals, for a total tally of 31, reaching an outstanding 5th place in the overall medal table.  

                   The 1960s were a transitional period. Two sprinters, Enrique Figuerola and Miguelina Cobián stood as the dominating figures all over the decade with their long and solid careers, paving the way for the great feats of Alberto Juantorena, Silvio Leonard and Alejandro Casañas. Figuerola entered sport through baseball, but due to his stunning speed was advised to follow the way of the track. In 1956, still 18, the Santiago de Cuba-born beat two times national legend Rafael Fortún, who retired that same year, realizing that his time had past. The young Figuerola then claimed in 1960 the old national record of Jacinto Ortiz, clocking twice 10.2 in one week, making a clear statement he was the new king of the Cuban sprints. Thereafter he would lead the 100m and 200m rankings for ten years, setting a total of 29 national records, also making the world top-10 in six different seasons. The upcoming runner entered that year’s Rome Olympic Games but paid his lack of experience and almost improvised training, because he had not a regular coach at the time, finishing the 100m final just out of the medals. In following seasons, Figuerola would benefit of the foundation of the INDER and their ambitious sportive program. Polish coach Vladimir Puzzio took the sprinter in charge, correcting his technical mistakes and helping him become a world beater. (7) In 1961 “El Fígaro” achieved his first international victory at the World University Games in Sofia and two years later he also won the gold medal at the Pan American Games. After a meticulous preparation in Russia, the Cuban standout was ready for his second Olympic Games, where his most fearsome contender was US’ Bob Hayes. Both were quite different runners. While the North American was close to the ordinary sprinter: tall, iron-like muscled, with gigantic stride, Figuerola’s biotype was pretty atypical. He was just 1.67m tall and measured 63kg, but made up for this handicap with his bullet start and unbelievably quick stride cadence, together with his determination and tireless work. In Tokyo, the Cuban took as usual the lead in the first stages of the final. Hayes got to overtake him in the end, needing to break the world record to win the race, in a time of 10.06sec. Enrique Figuerola ended up second, achieving the first Olympic medal of the Cuban revolution and the first ever in track and field for his country.

Pablo Montes, the best Cuban sprinter at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games

            In 1967 “El Fígaro” equalled the world best, with a manual timing of 10.0 in a meeting in Budapest. After him, new short-distance standouts Pablo Montes (10.2), Hermes Ramírez (10.2) and Félix Eugellés (10.3), proved the excellent health of Cuban sprints. All three, Figuerola, Montes and Ramírez made the trip to Mexico in what was to be the former’s third Olympic Games. From that trio, only Montes made the final, thanks to his consistency in every one of his qualifying heats. The man who had smashed the 400m national best before becoming a 100m specialist clocked 10.14 in the first round (a new national record), then 10.16 in the quarterfinals and 10.19 in the semi-final, before finishing in the most unfair of places in the decisive race (again in 10.14), after Jim Hines, the first human who ran the distance under 10 seconds, Lennox Miller and Charlie Greene. Hermes improved that Cuban record to 10.10 during the contest but was not as astounding in his semi-final. Those marks of this pair of Caribbean aces, helped by the altitude and the newly introduced synthetic track, made the electronic all-time top-10 and still are landmarks for the new generations of Cuban sprinters. For the 4x100m relay was added hurdler Juan Morales, a worthy heir of continental medallists Evaristo Iglesias and Lázaro Betancourt, who had become the first man in the country under 14sec that same year, and was also able to complete the dash event in 10.2. Ramírez produced an excellent outburst, Morales ran a powerful backstretch and Montes delivered the baton to Figuerola in contention for the gold medal. However, despite bad previous turnovers, Jim Hines was in the form of his life and romped home in 38.24 (a new world record) to beat the veteran Cuban anchor, who clocked 38.40 to close his athletic career with another silver medal. (8) It was a bittersweet reward for the Cuban quartet which was so close to the victory. This mark would stand as the national record for 32 years, until another Olympic-medal-winning quartet formed by Jorge Aguilera, Joel Isasi, Joel Lamela and Andrés Simón would clock 38.00 in Barcelona-92.     

                    Miguelina Cobián was the leading woman during the whole 1960s decade but the absolute pioneer was Julia Bertha Díaz Hernández. Díaz was the first Cuban female who participated in the Olympic Games, which she did in 1956 in Melbourne and then in 1960 in Rome. Not really lucky in those Olympic experiences, she achieved however astounding results in national and continental contests. At the 1955 Pan American Games in Mexico she was the only member of Cuba, male or female, who won a gold medal in track and field. Succeeding Rafael Fortún, Bertha carried home the 60m gold medal and besides she did it smashing the world record in the distance (7.5sec). A versatile athlete, she would also set universal records at the 80m hurdles. It was precisely in that event she clinched her second title at the Pan Americans, at the 1959 edition in Chicago. Bertha, who claims to have won a total of 258 gold medals in her long career, was chosen 14 times female athlete of the year in Cuba and 12 of them best overall sportswoman in the country. (9) However she was critical with the Cuban revolution and had plenty of troubles with the authorities in the island. Bertha could not defend for this reason her continental title in Sao Paulo and was three years later, in 1966, the flip-side of the coin of the otherwise heroic episode of Cerro Pelado.

Bertha Díaz, the first Olympian female of Cuba

The USA government tried to prevent the presence of Cuban athletes at the Central American Games to be held in the US'-ruled Puerto Rico. First they denied Visas to the athletes but, after the Cuban delegation raised a protest to the IOC, They were forced to produce them, yet they forbade the landing in Puerto Rico of any mean of transport coming from Cuba, demanding its athletes to arrive in an international flight. In answer to this tricky move, the Communist country decided to make travel its athletes in a merchant ship, named “Cerro Pelado,” after a famous military victory, anchoring it a few miles off Puerto Rico territorial waters. Embarrassed, the IOC sent motorboats to fetch the Cuban athletes and carry them to the venue of the Games. (10) ) In spite of the hostile atmosphere, those Central Americans were a resounding sportive success for Cuba. Among the gold medallists shone Enrique Figuerola and Miguelina Cobián. However, Bertha Díaz, who was into the ship, was instead sent back home, fearing she would defect. Soon afterwards, the first Cuban female Olympian left her country, heading first to Spain, then to Miami. In the USA she resumed her sportive career, winning three times at the national championships. Díaz was considered a traitor in her home country but she still complains about the way she was nearly kidnapped from the Cerro Pelado, accused of being a CIA agent. (9) 
Miguelina Cobián took the vacant spot of Bertha Díaz as national queen of track and field and was as successful. Spotted by triple Olympic champion in Helsinki Emil Zatopek and trained by him personally since she was 18, the athlete known as “La Gacela de Oriente” experienced a quick rise to the top of Cuban sprinting. In 1962 she obtained international acclaim as she won two golds and a silver at the inaugural Central American Athletic Championships in Xalapa, Mexico; and later in the year she also prevailed at the 100m in the Central American Games in Kingston, so important for her country, because it was the first big sportive event they took part, after the Cuban Revolution. Miguelina would defend her title in Puerto Rico, then in Panama, thus becoming the only woman who has accomplished three straight gold medals in sprint events in the contest. Although often outmatched by North American stars as Olympic champions Edith McGuire, Barbara Ferrell or Wyomia Tyus, la Gacela de Oriente was rarely left out of the podium at the Pan American Games. Overall, she collected three individual silvers and one bronze, besides the 4x100m relay silver in Sao Paulo 1963 and a marvellous gold in Winnipeg 1967 with her mates Violeta Quesada, Cristina Hechavarría and Marcia Alejandra Garbey. At the Olympic Games, Cobián lived up to her reputation as one of the most consistent sprinters in the world, placing 5th in Tokyo and 8th in Mexico City. She was the first Cuban woman that qualified for an Olympic final. In the latter competition Miguelina set her all-time PBs at the 100m and 200m with 11.41 and 23.39 respectively. Yet her most sensational achievement in the Aztec capital was the silver medal obtained in the short relay, thus matching the success of Ramírez, Morales, Montes and Figuerola. Cuba had a respectable number of world class male sprinters but women’s had even a deepest field. Violeta Quesada, Fulgencia Romay and hurdler/pentathlete Marlene Elejalde made the team which completed the lap to the track in an impressive 43.36, only inferior to the invincible girls of the USA, and there were still other sprinters as good as them as Cristina Hechavarría and Marcia Garbey, who had to be left at home.

Miguelina Cobián leads Cuban sprinters in a meeting in Paris
Bertha Díaz had been very much of a pioneer. She was the first Cuban woman practising sport at global level and almost the only one doing so for a decade. For the next generation of women things were much easier. The Cuban Revolution, through the INDER, had brought access the same to boys and girls to the opportunity of learning the basics of sport into EIDEs and ESPAs. After a decade, the tree had grown big and healthy and was given quite a number of strong branches. In the beginning of the 70s there were a long list of Cuban excellent female sprinters, including hurdlers as Marlene Elejalde and quartermilers as 5th placer in Mexico Olympics Aurelia Pentón and Carmen Trustée; also competitive jumpers as Irene Martínez, Alejandra Garbey and Ana Bella Alexander, and outstanding throwers as Tomasa González, María Betancourt, Hilda Ramírez, Grecia Hamilton, Caridad Agüero, 20m-shot putter María Elena Sarría and 69m-discus thrower Carmen Romero. At the highly successful 1970 Central American Games in Panama, Cuba triumphed in all 12 female events, including 8 full sweeps of the places of the podium. In that outing it was also remarkable the three gold medals Pablo Montes and Miguelina Covián accomplished at the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay. Panama’s Central American Games meant the last international victories for La Gacela de Oriente, who would retire soon, after injuries prevented her from competing at the Pan Americans in Cali and Munich Olympic Games. Nevertheless, Carmen Laura Valdés and especially teen prodigy Silvia Chivás were ready to take over.     

Pedro Pérez Dueñas was the first Cuban triple jump star

Two teen athletes made a big breakthrough at the 1971 Pan American Games in Cali. 19-year-old Pedro Pérez Dueñas became the first of an impressive lineage, when he landed at 17.40m in the triple jump, one centimetre beyond the mark which earned Viktor Saneyev the gold medal at the 1968 Olympic Games, in that thrilling competition where the world record was beaten five times. Precisely, Pedro defeat one of those triple jump colossi from Mexico final: Nelson Prudencio of Brazil. Still younger, not yet 17, Silvia Chivás from Guantánamo raised the eyebrows as she won a noteworthy bronze medal, also clocking in the contest 11.39, a new national record. Pérez Dueñas was trained at the ESPA by silver Olympic medallist in 1952 and former record holder Leonid Chervakov. (12) Under the guidance of that coach from the Soviet Union, the young athlete jumped in 1970 to 16.38, already a national record, and obtained his first international victory at the Central American Games in Panama. One year later came his sensational feat in Cali. However, injuries slowed down the triple jumper in the Olympic year and he could not qualify for Munich final, when he was still the record holder. Eventually, Saneyev won again and regained the record by the end of the season. Thereafter, chronic troubles with his knees hindered Pérez Dueñas’ athletic career. He had to watch by TV how new triple jump phenomenon Joao Carlos de Oliveira took his Pan American title with a huge jump of 17.89, which demolished the previous world record. Half-fitted the Cuban champion could get a 4th place in Montreal Olympics, where Saneyev completed his hat-trick of victories. Never back to his former form and committed with his studies in medicine, Pedro Pérez Dueñas decided eventually retire in 1978. He only achieved to jump once beyond 17m in his senior career.

On the other hand, Silvia Chivás, one of the first pupils and future wife of new speed head coach in the national team Irolán Hechavarría, had an outstanding follow-up to Cali in the 1972 Olympic Games. Because of her youth she just went to Munich to learn but at the preliminary round she stopped the clock in 11.18, a new world junior record and the first universal best ever accomplished by a Cuban female in track and field in any age category. This mark stood until Brenda Morehead in 1976 ran the distance in 11.06, one year before Marlies Göhr set an impossible for current standards 10.88 in Dresden. Chivás showed great consistency in every one of her successive races, grabbing an excellent bronze medal with a good 11.24, only beaten by East German Renate Stecher, who set a new world record of 11.07, and Aussie Raelene Boyle. For the first time in years, a Cuban sprinter beat the US athletes in a major competition. Anyway, the North Americans had lost the spotlight in the event. For the new decade the powerhouses would be East and West Germans who fought the gold earnestly at the 4x100 relay, in a race 100m and 200m gold medallist Stecher was outmatched by long jump champion Heidi Rosendahl, and Cuba’s Silvia Chivás held off USA’s anchor to clinch bronze for Cuba, which got to climb to the Olympic podium for the second straight time in the event, matching the 43.36 national record from Mexico City. Marlene Elejalde and Fulgencia Romay contributed with their experience to the explosive youth of Chivás and Carmen Valdés.

Silvia Chivás of Cuba (66) clinches bronze at the 100m in Munich Olympic Games
in a race won by East German Renate Stecher (147)

Much was expected from the new Cuban standout who was already challenging the best in the world as a junior but in the following years she did not quite live up to the hopes she had created: At the 1974 Central American Games her mate Carmen Laura Valdés got the better of her, at the Pan Americans the next year she just won a medal in the 4x100m relay and finally in her second Olympic Games was eliminated in the semi-finals, while the reputed Cuban short relay ended up fifth, putting an end to their brilliant streak. Nevertheless in the 1977 season the best Silvia Chivás was back in action. In the highly successful Universiade in Sofia, where Cuban athletes won four titles and broke two world records, Chivás struck gold at the 200m and bronze at the 100m, also improving in the semi-final her old national best to 11.16. That year she became too the first Cuban woman under 23sec in the 200m (22.85) in Guadalajara and ended the year in a high note at the inaugural World Cup of Dusseldorf, where she only relinquished to Marlies Gohr and Brit Sonia Lannaman, the best two 100m runners of that year, for a praiseworthy bronze. In 1978 she kept the level winning no less than three gold medals at the Central American Games in Medellín but the next year, after a disappointing performance at the Pan American Games, she opted for retirement, not bothering for the Olympics, when she still was 25. Her national records would stand for many years until the arrival of Liliana Allen in the 1990s.   
                   In spite of their most exciting prospects ending up prematurely, Cuba continued with its meteoric rising in track and field in the remaining of the decade. Three men made up for the failure of those teen prodigies, three men we can place among the finest runners of their time: Silvio Leonard, Alejandro Casañas and Alberto Juantorena.  
           In the sprints, after Enrique Figuerola’s retirement, Hermes Ramírez and Pablo Montes were still going strong. They shone in continental contests in the first half of the new decade and had things to say in Munich and Montreal Olympic Games. However there was a new face in Cuban sprints that had quickly overshadowed them all. Silvio Leonard from the town of Cienfuegos had broken under the guidance of Irolán Hechavarría the 100m national junior record in 1973, with a time of 10.24sec and soon was causing a big impression among the seniors. (13) Montes and Ramírez had equalled Figuerola when they got to run the distance in 10.0 but, in 1975, 21-year-old Leonard matched the same world record holder Jim Hines when he stopped the clock in 9.9 in a meeting in OstravaOn the contrary to previous Cuban tradition, the new national star was also an accomplished 200m runner. His contemporary Osvaldo Lara, author of a 10.11 PB, had inherited the bullet star of Figuerola and Hermes. On the other hand, Leonard had not a fast outburst but was gifted with excellent speed endurance. Another athlete born in 1954, Alejandro Casañas, spotted in a local competition in Guanabacoa, wanted also to join the rich tradition of Cuban sprinting but their coaches decided instead his height (1.88m) was ideal for the hurdles. Irolán taught him the basics of the event but it was Heriberto Secundino Herrera the man who made become him one of the best in the world technically speaking. (14) Prior to Casañas, athletes like Lázaro Betancourt or the 4x100m silver medallist in Mexico, Juan Morales, had excelled in regional contest yet their level was not enough to challenge the very best like Willie Davenport or Rod Milburn. Casañas would become the first world class Cuban hurdler, opening the road for future stars as Anier García and Dayron Robles. Both Leonard and Casañas were successful at the Central American Games in Santo Domingo and headed for the 1975 Pan Americans hoping to do well in the contest. Indeed, Silvio Leonard ran the 100m event in 10.15, beating in the process Hasely Crawford from Trinidad and Tobago, the man who was to become Olympic champion the next year, and Hermes Ramírez. Unfortunately Silvio was unable to stop and fell heavily into the ditch around the track. The severe injury would require back surgery. On the other hand, Alejandro Casañas, in another marvellous performance, accomplished a massive national record, 13.44, becoming the first no-US athlete gold medallist in the 110m hurdles in the Pan Americans. Another upcoming Cuban finished runner-up in the 400m, only beaten by United States representative Ronnie Ray. His name was Alberto Juantorena.      

Alejandro Casañas, the first Cuban standout at the 110m hurdles
            Alberto Juantorena Dánger, who was called “El Caballo” and also deservedly “El Elegante de las Pistas” because there was never a runner displaying such majestic gallop on an athletic track, was born in Santiago de Cuba the 21st November 1950. Still taller than Casañas (1.90m) and also gifted with speed and agility, he was enrolled in basket ball in his hometown ESPA. Juantorena was nothing special in this sport, but junior athletic coach in sprints and hurdles José “Cheo” Salazar, who used to watch him training, believed he had found a jewel for track and field. (15) After a test, Zigmund Zabierzowski, the Polish athletic head national coach, gave his approval and took him under his wing since 1971. In spite of his late incorporation to serious practise of track and field, Juantorena’s dedication and natural talent and Zabierzowski wise guidance soon brought stunning results. Notably, the athlete’s frame with very long limbs and short trunk was ideal for running. Besides he had a stunning capacity of recovery so he could stand the hardest workouts and his strong willpower made the rest. Juantorena was named in the team for Munich Olympic Games, where he arrived to the semi-finals in the 400m and obtained his first international title at the World University Games in Moscow the following year. When in 1974 he led the yearly lists with 44.70 from a meeting in Torino, Juantorena started to be favoured for a medal in Montreal Olympic Games, along with mates Silvio Leonard and Alejandro Casañas.  

Leonard had miraculously recovered from his injury at the Pan Americans but again misfortune stroke him, when in an accident in the Olympic Village a vase broke up and glasses reached his left ankle. The wound was a serious handicap for his performance in Montreal and he was eliminated in the quarter-finals. Silvio’s first chance for Olympic glory had vanished and without him the 4x100m relay of Ramírez and Montes lost its chances of climbing to the podium. Casañas was much closer but his silver medal was more a disappointment than a reason of happiness for him. The Cuban hurdler argues it was unfair to assigned him lane 7 in the final when he had won his heat with the fastest time (11.34) overall. Once in the decisive outing he was not quick in the start and could not see his main rivals after mid-race. Then he accelerated but it was too late to overcome French Guy Drut, who improved from silver in Munich to gold in Montreal in a close finish over Casañas (13.30 to 13.33), while the champion in Mexico City Willie Davenport ended up in third place. Yet, if Leonard and Casañas failed to deliver the much awaited Cuban first Olympic gold medal ever in track and field, Alberto Juantorena, in a magnificent display of elegance and power, did not bring one but two for his beloved country.  
However, “El Caballo” was quite unsettled when Zabierzowski communicated him he was doubling up events in the Olympics, because he had been entered in the 800m. The first thing he though was it would ruin his chances in his pet event, the 400m: there were too many races to complete and besides there were almost incompatible specialties. Prior to Montreal, the Polish coach had tricking Juantorena saying his 800m tests and high mileage he had to do in training were just a way to enlarge his endurance for the 400m. Now he realised about the true meaning of it. Anyway, obedient, the runner went to the 800m final to face the most solid field you can fancy at Olympic Games. Juantorena took the lead from the gun, leading the field to a very fast 50.9. At the bell Indian Sri Ram Singh launched his attack yet Juantorena overcame him in the backstretch again. He had gained a small gap over his contenders but then Rick Wohlhuter of the United States came from behind. It seemed the Cuban was going to pay his hot pace, however, as he was challenged, he powered strongly to romp home in 1:43.50, a new world record. He had transformed the 800m in a long sprint! Ivo Van Damme passed a fading Wohlhuter to win one of his two silver medals in the Games, and two outstanding hopefuls followed up: Willy Wülbeck, future first world champion of the event, and Steve Ovett, the next Olympic winner. Someone like European titleholder Luciano Susanji could only achieve a 7th place in that world class final. That 800m race proved two of the qualities which made Juantorena a champion: his stunning capacity to change gear in the closing stages of the race and his competitiveness. He said he liked to come to a race feeling he was the devil and also stated the challenge of his rivals acted as a stimulus for him. In spite of his generous effort, Juantorena still had enough energy left for the 400m, which he also conquered in 44.26, the best clocking ever at sea level, before US athletes Fred Newhouse and Herman Frazier. The impossible double had been done for the first time in a global championship and we are still waiting for the second one, though in the female category Jarmila Kratotchvilova of Czechoslovakia got to emulate the Cuban at the 1983 World Champs in Helsinki.  Understandably Juantorena was named unanimously best world athlete of the year and also best Olympian in Montreal, along with Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci.      
The 1977 season showed every one in the Cuban awesome trio at the peak of their power. Silvio Leonard started the fireworks when he ran the 11th August the 100m distance in 9.98 and the 200m in 20.08 in Guadalajara, on occasion of the inaugural World Cup American trials. Both were huge national records and the former also the second best mark ever, just behind the world record Jim Hines set in Mexico Olympic Games and the second time a human had dipped under the 10sec barrier. Leonard would improve further his 200m record to 20.06 in 1978 in Warsow. Ten days afterwards, Cuba obtained its best tally ever in a global championship at the Universiade, held in Sofia, just showing the sensational raise of the level of track and field in the island. All Silvio Leonard, Alejandro Casañas, Alberto Juantorena and Silvia Chivás won one gold medal each. Furthermore, Casañas and Juantorena in a historic day for Cuba set world records the 21st August at the 110m hurdles and 800m respectively. Yet there is an amazing anecdote about that double feat the hurdler likes to tell: “Juantorena and I slept in the same hotel room. Before the finals of our events, which had to be held the same day in the lapse of a few minutes, Juantorena told me: “When we will come back from our races look at that piece of paper I am leaving into the drawer.” And we left. Everybody knows what happened that day. Alberto broke the 800m record with 1:43.44 and I did the same at the 110m hurdles with 13.21. When we returned back to our room was revealed what had been written in that piece of paper: “Today Casañas and I are going to break the 110m hurdles and 800m world records.” (14) And there was still more to come that year. The first IAAF World Cup, which was a prelude of the future World Championship in athletics, held its first edition in Düsseldorf. Silvio Leonard had to be content with two bronze medals in sprint events, in races won by USA representatives Steve Williams and Clancy Edwards, and Alejandro Casañas with silver behind East German Thomas Munkelt; yet Juantorena ratified his double victory from Montreal. The 800m was especially attractive because Alberto faced Mike Boit, the outstanding middle distance runner from Kenya, who was missed in the Olympic Games due to the African boycott. In a previous match in Zurich, the Cuban had got the better of his rival in an outing ran at a very quick pace like in Montreal, the way Juantorena liked more. On the contrary, the World Cup was a tactical race, decided in a kick in the homestretch. This time around Juantorena defeated Boit in the Kenyan’s own terrain. (17) For the second time the Cuban was voted best athlete of the year.
Notwithstanding, when the double champion from Montreal was asked why he did not set a fast rhythm at the 800m in Düsseldorf he answered it was because of tiredness after a very long season. (18) Indeed Alberto Juantorena raced no less than 36 times that year, always expected to win. That competitive craziness took its toll on him and thereafter injuries and uncountable chirurgical operations hindered his athletic career so the Cuban ace could never be the same again. At the 1979 Pan American Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, he was beaten in both his events by US athletes Tony Darden (400m) and James Robinson (800m). This continental contest is the only one he could never win, the one that is missed in his astounding curriculum. Besides, during the year Sebastian Coe would take his 800m record at the Bislett Games in Oslo.  On the other hand, Casañas found a fierce rival in the young Renaldo Nehemiah, maybe the most talented hurdler ever: the first man under 13sec in 1981, before he decided to join professional football. Nehemiah beat Casañas in both Pan Americans and the second edition of the World Cup in Montreal. Silvio Leonard fared better than his illustrious mates in those competitions. In the former he completed a sprint double victory and in the latter silver at the 100m but gold at the 200m. Often Silvio believed the double hectometre was the event he was most gifted for. I wonder what he could achieve in it, had he dedicated the same time to it than to the 100m, always the most fashionable discipline in track and field. 
María Colón, first Latin-American female Olympic champion

           None of the three Cuban standouts of the 70s could fulfil his dream of Olympic victory in Moscow 1980. Juantorena, far from his shape of four years before, opted for entering a single event, the 400m, where he could finish only fourth in a race won by host athlete Viktor Markin. On the other hand, Leonard and Casañas ended in runner-up positions when they came to the contest as clear favourites. Silvio did not enjoy his chances, in a final devaluated because of the boycott of the USA. In the end he was surprised by Briton Alan Wells, paying his excess of confidence as he recognised later. (13) Casañas, also in the absence of his black beast Nehemiah, was beaten again by East German Thomas Munkelt. In this defeat he blamed the lack of fair play of one of the Soviet Union athletes who in his words hit him twice during the final, slowing him down. (14) Fortunately, Cuba still won a gold medal thanks to javelin thrower María Caridad Colón, a 22-year-old young girl from Baracoa. Colón had won the Central American Games in 1978 and the Pan Americans the following year to continue her progression in Moscow, upsetting experienced favourites like Ruth Fuchs, Ute Hommola, Saida Gumba and world record holder Tatyana Biryulina. Colón’s opening throw of 68.40 killed the contest, thus becoming the first Latin-American female Olympic champion ever in any sport. (15) Another thrower, Luis Mariano Delís, was also successful in those Games, grabbing a noteworthy bronze medal at the discus throw, after Viktor Rashchupkin and Imrich Bugar, to start a brilliant international career. Delís, guided by Hermes Riverí, also the coach of Olympic champion in Barcelona 1992 Maritza Marten, was the only Cuban who won a medal at the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki and also climbed to the podium four years later in Rome. Basing his style in the German school, Delís had the most perfected technique of his time, to the point in every meeting his rivals studied it in order to learn from him. (19)   
             Helsinki World Championships came too late for Silvio Leonard, Alejandro Casañas and Alberto Juantorena, who were also deprived of competing at their last Olympic Games, when Cuba supported the Soviet boycott to Los Angeles. The double Olympic champion in Montreal won gold at the alternative Friendship Games, organised in Moscow, sharing this medal with Polish Richard Ostrowski. All three champions said goodbye to international competition soon afterwards, though Casañas pointed out he still intended to compete and was forced to retire by the Cuban Federation. An emotional man who always spoke aloud what he thought, the hurdler had eventually troubles with the politic regime of Cuba and ended up leaving the country to move to Colombia where he currently lives. He blames former mate and friend Alberto Juantorena, now member of the IAAF, President of the Cuban Federation and Vice President of the INDER, as the “intellectual author” of his marginalisation and eventual exile. (14)  

Alberto Juantorena was the first Cuban Olympic champion in track and field. Since then no less than 15 other Cuban athletes have climbed to the top of the podium at the Olympic Games or Summer World Champions in one or more occasions: Caridad Colón, Maritza Marten, Iván Pedroso, Javier Sotomayor, Anier García, Osleydis Menéndez, Yumeilidi Cumbá, Dayron Robles, Ana Fidelia Quirot, Ioamnet Quintero, Yoelbis Quesada, Daimí Pernía, Yipsi Moreno, Zulia Calatayud and Yargelis Savigne. In spite of the lost of the inestimable help of the USSR after the fall of the Soviet Block, the continuation of the long US' embargo and the subsequent economical crisis, sportive basis are well established and keep working to perfection. (20) Excellent coaching and work at the grassroots level continue to this day. Former athletes are now devoted to transmit to the new generations all their knowledge and experience. Every athletic specialty is well covered and today there are even excellent international results in areas Cuba never excelled before as combined events and pole vault, though some speak more precisely about a newly-recovered tradition in these events. Thus the coach of new sensations Lázaro Borges and Yarisley Silva is Rubén Camino, a 5.50 pole vaulter who won a silver medal at the 1987 Pan American Games. (21) However, not everything is sweet and nice in Cuba. What once was a young revolution, today is an old dictatorial regime unable to evolve and learn from its mistakes. Lack of freedom and corruption often tarnish Cuban socialist ideals and many well-known athletes have defected in the first occasion. Cuban officials would argue they have just sold their soul for a couple of dollars and this is not totally wrong. Anyway nowadays, Cuba is trying to avoid exacerbated amateur conceptions and thus champions like Dayron Robles or Yargelis Savigne are allowed private sponsorship by foreign companies as Adidas.
Strictly speaking about sport, is interesting to point out Cuba was for a long time a world powerhouse in sprint events but in the last 25 years most of its victories have been achieved in jumps and throws. The exception to this trend is the successful hurdles school, led by Santiago Antúnez, who received from the IAAF the coach of the year award in 2010. Since he began his labour in the mid eighties there has been an uninterrupted succession of world class hurdles, starting with 1986 World junior champion Emilio Valle, then Aliuska López, Odalys Adams, Erick Battke, Anier García, Daimí Pernía, Yoel Hernández, Anay Tejeda, Dayron Robles and finally new Pan American champion Orlando Ortega. (22) Old Soviet coaching influences have been blend there with a later close look to USA, French and British models to elaborate a successful hybrid of their own. (23) In plain contrast is the long crisis of the once astounding dash sprints sector, which precisely sank in the same historic moment that started the rising of Santiago Antúnez’s school. After Silvio Leonard’s retirement, Leandro Peñalver and Andrés Simón managed a decent succession, both clocking 10.06, the former winning gold at the 1983 Pan American Games, the latter at the 1989 World indoor championships. After them, the lineage was broken. No more Pan American champions, not even a finalist at Olympic level. In a moment the Caribbean sprinters, led by Jamaica, are ruling the world, no Cuban male has dipped under 10.10 for decades and Silvio Leonard’s records are on the way celebrate their 40th anniversary. Old master Irolán Hechavarría, acknowledging the lack of individual stars (with perhaps the only exception of 200m specialist Iván García), with the help of former runner Silvia Chivás,  priorised working with the 4x100m relay; thus he accomplished two bronze medals in 1992 (Aguilera, Isasi, Lamela and Simón) and 2000 (César, García, Mayola, Pérez-Rionda) Olympic Games. Today even this option is not possible anymore. Among the girls, there are similar pessimistic feelings. Exceptions as Liliana Allen and Roxana Díaz just confirm the rule. 
An interesting study of Doctor Ariel Muñiz Sanabria points to the curse of the “Campeonismo” as the main factor which explains Cuban failure to produce an international champion in dash sprints. (24)  Some specialists argue there is an inability to find new talents in sprint in the country. Actually, it seems the opposite: if we compare the marks of Cuban kids of 11 to 15 years with the ones obtained in other countries in the world of the same age, Cuban’s level is clearly superior. The problem is those Cuban promising youngsters stagnate when they reach junior age. The reason is, at the EIDEs and ESPAs, coaches’ wages and promotions are bestowed depending on the results in scholar competitions of their trainees. Thus those coaches look for short-term victories, instead of long- term development of the athlete. With this purpose kids are over trained: too much volume and intensity are required in workouts; also too much weight lifting. Instead of the simple fun of playing a sport, kids experience stress and burning-up so eventually many of them drop it even before becoming adults. If we confirm many of the historic standouts of Cuban sprinting did not join the practise of athletics until their junior years, many of them coming from team sports as football (Montes), baseball (Figuerola) or basket ball (Juantorena), we can downplay the efficacy of Cuban EIDE’s and ESPA’s in its task of forming specialists in sprints. Hopefully, new standouts as Roberto Skyers who beat the 200m national junior record in 2009 and Nelkys Casabona would help to finish up with this long drought of international medals. (25)                  

Silvio Leonard, still the Cuban 100m and 200m record holder, nearly four decades after his exploits