Obituary: Vladimir Yashchenko

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The Independent Culture
TOP OF the world at 18, on the sporting scrapheap at 20, dead by the age of 40: the brief life and times of Vladimir Yashchenko, the former world record-holder for the high jump, illustrate only too well how cruel modern athletics can be.

Yashchenko's finest athletic moment came on 3 July 1977, when he cleared the high-jump bar at 2.33 metres (7ft 8in) for his first world record. But severe injuries to his knees prevented him from competing beyond 1979, and he missed out on the opportunity to compete at the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980. The physical pain from his sports injuries, and the frustration, saw him drift into alcoholism, in later years trying to survive on a meagre government pension - paid to all former Ukrainian sporting heroes - of 250 hryvnias, about pounds 35, per month.

Although only 20 years ago, Yashchenko's athletics career was conducted in what might have been a different world. His predecessor as world record- holder, Dwight Stones, was banned from competition for the heinous offence in athletics' "shamateur" era of receiving payment for competing in the television programme Superstars; Yashchenko's world record came at Richmond, Virginia in a "dual meet", competitions popular during the Cold War, pitching junior teams from the United States against the Soviet Union; and Yashchenko used a high-jump technique which is now as extinct as the dodo - the straddle, where he cleared the bar face down, rather than the backwards Fosbury Flop technique that was first used at the 1968 Olympic Games and is now virtually universal in athletics.

The report of Yashchenko's world record leap from the American magazine, Track and Field News, underlines the unexpectedness of the teenager's achievement:

It started off as a quiet, low-key track meet, the US v USSR juniors. The University of Richmond is set in a small forest and tall, picturesque trees provide much of the background. It was a warm July weekend, the 2,000-seat stands were only a little more than a half full, and everyone was having a good time watching the US team beat their young Soviet counterparts in a friendly, relaxed atmosphere.

And then, suddenly, there was Yashchenko.

As the two-day meet neared its conclusion, Vladimir Ilyich Yashchenko, an 18-year-old Ukrainian, shattered the tranquility by breaking the world high jump record witha leap of 2.33m. That turned the peaceful scene into one of frenzied excitement over one of the most astonishing performances in recent memory.

Yashchenko's success was greeted by athletics purists as heralding the renaissance of the straddle, and he was acclaimed as being the man most likely to be the first to clear 2.40m. Yashchenko carried many hopes, not least his own, as the following year he won continental titles indoors and out, improving the world best to 2.35m in winning the European Indoors in Milan.

In an extraordinary competition watched by 15,000 spectators who packed the Palazzo dello Sport, Yashchenko jumped a gruelling 20 times. One eye- witness, Giorgio Reinari, now head of media with the International Amateur Athletic Federation, remembers: "His run-up was extraordinarily light, with amazing muscular elasticity. He used to tighten up the muscles of his left leg - his take-off leg - in the final dashing strides to unleash exceptional force: bounding skywards like a coiled spring freed of earthly restraints."

Yashchenko, with his rotor-like, "helicopter" jumping style, remains the last straddle jumper to hold the world record. According to his contemporary, Stones, the knee injury Yashchenko suffered in 1979 was so violently sickening that another competitor that day was forced to vomit on seeing the damage. Operations followed, but Yashchenko's high-jumping career was effectively over before his 20th birthday.

Vladimir Ilyich Yashchenko, athlete: born 12 January 1959; died Zaporozhye, Ukraine 30 November 1999.