A Medal at Any Cost

A Medal at Any Cost

March 17, 2010

Making of the Chapter:

Living in a society, such as the Soviet Union, where one’s role and behaviour was so tightly conscribed and where role models were largely determined by the authorities, meant that sport assumed a special place in people’s hearts.  People could choose to do sport or to watch, and who they chose as role models was beyond the reach of the authorities.

In A Medal at any Cost I spend a train journey in the company of a group of athletes (and the Provodnitsa who checks the tickets, tends the samovar, and generally keeps passengers in order).  We reflect on the importance of Ukraine to the Soviet Union’s Olympic results, relive great Olympic moments, disagree about the extent of cheating during the Games, and offer a cautious outlook on the European Cup 2012 (to be jointly hosted by Ukraine and Poland).


 “Bubka always chose a heavier and stiffer pole than his competitors, and his success lay in his unusually strong arms, fantastic acceleration over twenty-two strides, and technique for planting the pole. In a straight race he could run the hundred metres in 10.45 seconds; he was a natural athlete.”

He paused, recounting his feelings from twenty years earlier. “The wining jump was over in a few seconds. I held my breath as Bubka planted the pole beneath the bar, forcing it to bend. Pole and vaulter momentarily stopped before the pole whip-lashed him skyward and he twisted over the bar, set at 5.90 metres. He had won the gold medal and the stadium and households throughout the Soviet Union erupted! Soon afterwards he became the first man to clear six metres — for decades considered impossible — and is the only man to vault 6.14 outdoors.” He breathed deeply, contentedly, as if it were his own achievement.

Pole vault, with its practical origin as a means of crossing rivers, was the sort of sport the authorities wanted people to appreciate. It required speed, strength, precision, and intellect. In contrast to the javelin, discus, hammer, shot put, and so on, which are highly regulated, the pole can be of any length or material of the athlete’s choosing. The limits are set by what one can lift and its flexibility and strength. If it snaps (the athlete’s nightmare), there’s a good chance he’ll end up looking like a piece of shashlik on a skewer.

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