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Yashchenko, the last king of the straddle

The news of the death of Vladimir Yashchenko of cirrhosis of the liver, aged 40, is especially sad for those who remember him, little more than an adolescent, on the highest step of the athletics podiums of the world.

Yashchenko was a magnificent high jumper, perhaps the most elegant proponent of the straddle and, in the opinion of many critics, better than he who had been until then the greatest of them all: Valeriy Brumel.

With Yashchenko, the adepts of that particular style – including the celebrated Soviet coach Vladimir Dyatchkov – believed that they could show that the future of the discipline did not belong to the school of the Fosbury Flop, but with the followers of the more traditional style.

And Yashchenko proved them right. With a world record of 2.33m, set in Richmond, Virginia, in 1977, during a USA-USSR junior meeting, he snatched the record from USA's Dwight Stones who, in Munich in 1973, was the first man to clear 2.30m, using the Fosbury Flop. Stones took the mark to 2.32m, when the unexpected eruption of Yashschenko seemed set to launch a veritable renaissance of the straddle.

The tall, slim (1.93m, 74kg) Soviet youngster looked wonderful, with his 18-year-old face framed by a mass of blond curls. 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.

The 1978 European Indoor Championships – held in the Palazzo dello Sport in Milan, just around the corner from that sanctuary of football, the San Siro stadium – attracted nearly 30,000 spectators for the two days of competition. On the Saturday, Sara Simeoni had won the women’s high jump title, clearing 1.94m with her fabulously dynamic Fosbury Flop, much to the delight of the crowd. The next day, an equally large crowd came to the Palazzo dello Sport, at the end of the neighbouring football game, to watch the 19-year-old Soviet prodigy at work.

A show, far more refined than that offered by the prestigious team of Inter, was to follow. Yashchenko sailed through the air as though an invisible rotor blade was holding him up as he plunged towards the mattress and his body swept over the bar.

Thus, "Helicopter Vladimir" took the world indoor record to an incredible 2.35m; a height he would surely have improved still further if a knee injury had not put paid to his career the following year, at just 20 years old after taking the world outdoor record to 2.34m, at Tbilisi, and winning the European title in Prague.

So it was that the star of Yashchenko was to shine but for two short seasons, a supernova burnt out by its own excessive brilliance. With that rapid extinction and the retirement from competition of the East German Rolf Beilschmidt, the era of the straddle was definitively closed.

Giorgio Reineri for the IAAF