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Remembering Yaschenko, 1977 European juniors star – Donetsk 2013

Donetsk will host its first international athletics championship since the 1977 European Juniors when it welcomes the IAAF’s World Youth Championships next year (July 10-14).

As the action gets underway in the RSC Olimpiyskiy stadium, the thoughts of many will turn back to that rainswept event 36 years earlier. And of all the young athletes competing in the Ukrainian city on that occasion, there is no more poignant example than the Soviet athlete whose winning high jump of 2.30m still stands as the European Junior Championship record, Vladimir Yaschenko.

Pity those junior high jumpers who attempted to match Yaschenko on the day of the final in Donetsk, August 20. By the time he came to the European Juniors he was, at 18, the youngest World record holder in High Jump history.

Yaschenko’s day of days had taken place just over a month before the 1977 European Juniors, on July 3, in a junior international match between the Soviet Union and the United States in Richmond, Virginia.

In front of an increasingly disbelieving crowd, Yaschenko bettered the 16-year-old World junior record of 2.25m - held by fellow Soviet Valeriy Brumel, the 1964 Olympic champion - clearing 2.27, and then went on to record heights of 2.31 and 2.33.

The latter effort was enough to eclipse the world record of 2.32 set the previous year by the United States’ Dwight Stones.

Most extraordinary of all, Yaschenko had achieved this remarkable sequence using the straddle technique – clearing the bar face down – which had become all but extinct following the ground-breaking victory at the 1968 Mexico Olympics of Dick Fosbury employing the backwards clearance which came to be known as the Fosbury Flop.

Yaschenko was not entirely alone in using the straddle at the time – the female World record holder of the time, East Germany’s Rosemarie Ackermann, also employed that technique. Ackermann, indeed, became the first woman to jump 2.00m just six days after the Ukrainian’s European Junior victory. But these two were not swimming against the tide – they were swimming against a tidal wave.

"My idol, Valeriy Brumel, used the straddle, and I didn’t want to switch," Yaschenko explained.

He became known as the last king of the straddle. His handsome features, which put one in mind of a young Marlon Brando, adorned the front of sports magazines around the world. He liked rock music. Pictures taken of him at the time could have been album covers, although they would have been more for the teenage girl market as he sat wistfully in long grass with the sun shining on his unruly fair hair.

A shy character, Yaschenko declared: "All I think about is clearing that bar."

A Sports Illustrated piece on July 25, 1977 by Marsh Clark discussed the various merits of the Flop and the Straddle before maintaining: "What nobody disputes is that Yaschenko enjoys a very bright future. While other high-jump stars have faded fast – a prime example being the University of Wisconsin’s Pat Matzdorf, who set a world record in 1971 and disappeared practically the moment he landed in the pit – the 6ft 3in Yaschenko is a growing boy who is still honing his technique."

Alas, that confidence, though understandable, proved false. Although the straddle took Yaschenko still higher in 1978, as he raised the world record to 2.34 at a meeting in Tibilisi, this star proved ultimately to be a shooting star.

In 1979 Yaschenko suffered a knee injury reportedly so gruesome that it caused one of his fellow jumpers to vomit. He never recovered his career, and the pain and frustration of it all caused him to drift into alcoholism. He died in 1999, aged 40, from cirrhosis of the liver.

Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF