Rugby Union: No room in Brum for Britain's No 1

Simon Turnbull finds Britain's leading woman pole-vaulter left out in the cold
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The Independent Online
SERGEI BUBKA, the ultimate high-flying businessman, has included a meeting in Birmingham on his busy winter schedule. It was announced last week that the Ukrainian, who has made a lucrative living out of soaring skywards, propelled by a fibre-glass pole, will be attempting to defy the forces of gravity in the Bupa indoor grand prix at the National Indoor Arena a fortnight today.

It will be a rare chance for a British audience to glimpse the pole-vaulting millionaire resident of Monte Carlo, the human phenomenon who has established 35 world records indoors and out and who has won all six world championship contests al fresco. Sadly, though, the home crowd will not see the ascendant star of British vaulting.

"We cannot get two pole-vault competitions into a meeting of this length," Ian Stewart, the British Athletic Federation's head of events, said. Thus Janine Whitlock will be in the Big Apple two days before Bubka goes to Brum, having a bite at the rest of the world's best women vaulters in the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden. "I need good competition at the moment," she said, "and I'll certainly get that. Emma George will be there." George, a 23-year-old student from Melbourne, has become the Bubka of women's pole vaulting. A trapeze artist with the Flying Fruit Flies circus troupe in her schooldays, she holds the world record at 4.55m.

Whitlock's target for 1998, according to her father and coach, Terry, is to reach 4.50m. If she succeeds, and the signs are promising, it will have taken her three years to achieve what it took Britain's male vaulters until 1964 to achieve. A sprinter until the summer of 1995, the 24-year- old Liverpool resident, a native of Dewsbury, became the first British woman to clear 4m. Last September she improved her national record to 4.23m. It ranked her seventh in the world, fourth in Europe and second in the Commonwealth - all of which augurs well for the summer ahead, when women's pole vaulting is accorded major championship status at the European Championships and Commonwealth Games.

Hence Whitlock will be as significant a competitor at the AAA Indoor Championships in Birmingham next weekend as Jonathan Edwards, Denise Lewis and the other Great British medal prospects expected at the National Indoor Arena. Whitlock, in fact, will be there this afternoon, honing her speed in the 60m and 200m in the Midland Open meeting. She also has two competitions in Germany this week, in Erfurt on Wednesday and Bielefeld on Friday. Quite possibly, the British indoor record she set at the Northern Championships in Sheffield on 10 January, 4.12m, will have been eclipsed by the time she returns to Birmingham.

"I am improving rapidly," Whitlock acknowledged. She is doing so with technical assistance, one day a week, from Brian Hooper, the Commonwealth Games bronze medallist in 1974 and 1978 and former holder of the British record. He was also what Sergei Bubka will never be: a literal Superstar, having been a star and champion of the long-lost small screen sporting show.