Russia’s rich athletics heritage has been overshadowed by recent doping scandals and the spectre of a blanket ban threatening to jeopardize the Olympic dreams of many world-class athletes including pole vault star, Yelena Isinbayeva.
However, there was a time when Russian athletes were revered and admired by the whole world including American fans, that too at the height of the Cold War: A testament to the quality and aura of the athletes who used to come out of Russia (then Soviet Union) at the time. In the 1960s, it was a Siberian high jumper who stole the heart of athletics fans the world over with his elegant leaps and a record-breaking spree.
Valeriy Brumel, despite a relatively short international career, dominated his event and won two Olympic medals and—silver in the 1960 Rome Games and a gold medal at Tokyo 1964. In the period between 1961 and ’63, he set six world records.
The records and medals speak volumes of his quality but his most memorable moment came in 1962 during an annual athletics duel between the United States and Soviet Union in California. In a memorable tussle, he won gold after out-jumping home favourite, John Thomas. After his victory, Brumel received a standing ovation from 80,000 American fans present at the stadium.
Thomas and Brumel were fierce rivals on the field, with Cold War political agenda fueling the competitive spirit, pushing both of them to greater heights, literally. However, off the arena, they were good friends.
Brumel was born on April 14, 1942, in a small village in east Siberia. He took to high jump at 12, and exhibited potential right from the start. At 16, employing the straddle style, he could easily clear the two-metre mark. Legend has it that Brumel was so agile that he could kick a basketball hoop from a standing position though he was just 6-feet 1-inch tall.
The physical prowess—the ability to launch himself vertically, coupled with sprinting capabilities (he could cover 100 metres in less than 11 seconds)—propelled him to greatness. During the course of his career, he improved the world mark from 2.23 to 2.28m.
The 1960s were a period of radical change in high jump. Brumel, regarded as the greatest high jumper of his era and one of the greatest exponent of the straddle style. But his style was rendered obsolete by the success of Dick Fosbury and his radical technique, the Fosbury Flop. Brumel and Fosbury, however, never had a head-to-head showdown in a major event. The American won gold at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Brumel had missed the Games as he was recovering from injuries suffered in a motorbike crash.
Brumel was a star in Russia and enjoyed liberties and luxuries back home, including a three-bedroom apartment and extra allowances from the government.
He loved living life in the fast lane and enjoyed fast cars and bikes. A motorcycle crash in 1965 (that year he was undefeated in all competitions) ended his international career. He suffered multiple fractures on his legs and took nearly three years to recover.
After recovering, he tried a comeback but limited himself to local competitions as he couldn’t touch the heights he was used to while reigning as the king of high jump. Brunel retired from all competitions in 1970.
The great Russian died on January 26, 2003, aged 60.