Valery Brumel: The Haggard High Jumper Wills Himself to Victory

Valery Brumel at the Tokyo Games in 1964, from the book
Valery Brumel at the Tokyo Games in 1964, from the book “The Olympic Century: XVIIIOlympiad”

They say confidence is key to victory. Competitors smell fear like sharks sense blood. When the Soviet high jumper, Valery Brumel, arrived in Tokyo for the Summer Games, his minders made sure no one would see him.

Since winning silver in Rome in 1960, Brumel drove himself with a ferociousness in numerous competitions leading up to Tokyo, and according to the book, “The Olympic Century Volume 16 – The XVIII Olympiad” by Carl A. Posey, Brumel was feeling “that deepening fatigue that comes from driving the machine too hard, too long.” Additionally, he had just lost the Soviet championship to Robert Shavlakadze, who also beat Brumel for gold in Rome. So he trained in a secluded area in Meiji Park, or stayed hidden in a room with his masseur playing chess.

At this stage, Brumel was beaten and haggard, and his 2.01 meter jumps in practice were far from championship level, They were, however, the best he could do.

When Brumel was at his best, people marveled at his form, what the Russians called “pouring the body over the bar like a cascade of clear water.” This was 1964, four years before Dick Fosbury revolutionized high jumping with his “Fosbury Flop”. In the first half of the Sixties, jumpers were still doing the spin roll, and Brumel’s technique was considered one of the best.

“At the heart of Brumel’s special brand of high jumping was a sequence of carefully orchestrated moves that Nijinsky might have envied. A big, powerfully assembled man, Brumel made his run-up with an awkward-looking sprint as he shifted his elbows forward to compensate for his upper body’s gradual backward lean as he approached the bar. He had trained with weights, so that his takeoff was like the explosive uncoiling of a spring. Then, for a moment, he was flying. To clear the bar, every extremity had to be under the fine, split-second control of a bird’s primary feathers. First the folded right leg went over, then the head, the big, friendly mouth extended in a white grimace of maximum effort. The right arm flipped back, adding thrust to bring the rest of his large body over the bar. Once the left arm cleared, the left leg kicked upward, adding dynamic balance. ”

And yet, as the competition in Tokyo began on October 20, Brumel could barely find his form, or generate the energy and enthusiasm necessary to compete for gold. Needing all three attempts, Brumel barely qualified by clearing a height almost every other competitor cleared (2.03 meters). “I appealed to God,” Brumel said later. “Jesus, why are you doing this to me? I’ve never done anyone any harm.”

So on a damp and chilly day on October 21, Brumel started the long slog of the finals, a journey of despair and exhaustion, in which the last man standing would be doing so, barely. As did most of the 20 competitors in the finals, initial jumps of 1.9, 1.95, 2.00, 2.03 and 2.06 meters were easily exceeded. But at 2.09 the competition went from 17 to 10, and then at 2.12, only 5 were left, including Brumel, American’s John Thomas and John Rambo, Swede Stig Pettersson, and Brumel’s Russian rival, Shavlakadze.

Rambo cleared 2.14 meters in one try, but it took Brumel, Thomas and Shavlakadze three attempts, Brumel missing badly in his first two. But something happened when the bar was raised to 2.16. It all came together and the tired Brumel flew over the bar in his first attempt. Thomas made it over in two, while his teammate made it in three, but Pettersen and Shavladkadze crashed out of the competition. And at 2.18 meters, as day ceded to night, Rambo fell by the wayside. At this point, the competition was essentially over.

As Brumel recalls, the remaining competitors had nothing left in the tank. “By the time they set the bar at 7 feet 2 and five-eighth inches, I was wiped out. I just knew I couldn’t handle the jump. I looked at Thomas and he looked back at me. He seemed up for it, but it was clear that he had had it, too. Right away I knew he couldn’t make the height either, that he’d settle for second.”

And so, both Brumel and Thomas failed to clear 2.20 meters. But because Brumel made it over an earlier jump in fewer attempts than Thomas, Brumel took first, and gold.

Gold Medalist Valery Brumel (C) of Soviet Union, Silver Medalist John Thomas of United States and Bronze Medalist John Rambo of United States pose on the podium at the Men’s High Jump medal ceremony during the Tokyo Olympic at the National Stadium on October 21, 1964 in Tokyo, Japan.