BARCELONA, Spain -- The world's greatest pole vaulter pulled an "O'Brien" last night.
Sergei Bubka, the pride of the Ukraine who lives in Berlin and pronounces himself "a citizen of the world," failed to clear a height in the Olympic final.
His three-misses-and-out performance was as shocking as Dan O'Brien's pole vault meltdown in the men's decathlon at the U.S. trials.
But there is a major difference. O'Brien gets paid to master 10 events. Bubka earns millions from one event, and has collected the 1988 Olympic gold, three world championship golds, and 30 records indoors and outdoors.
When Bubka left the stadium, a loser in a major competition for the first time since 1983, the way was opened for a new generation of vaulters to soar.
Maxim Tarasov of Russia and the Unified Team got the gold when he cleared 19 feet, one-half inch with two fewer misses than his Russian teammate, Igor Trandenkov, who was awarded the silver.
Spain's Javier Garcia Chico and American Kory Tarpenning reached 18-10 1/2 , but Garcia won the bronze based on fewer misses.
If the heights sound puny, there is a reason: a swirling wind that turned the Olympic stadium into a pole vaulter's nightmare.
"To me, Sergei's miss was a shock," Tarasov said.
But Bubka's fall wasn't the only highlight on another terrific night of track and field.
The 3,000-meter steeplechase turned into a Kenyan sweep, as Mathew Birir got the gold in 8 minutes, 8.84 seconds, Patrick Sang took the silver and William Mutwol received the bronze. America's Brian Diemer was seventh in 8:18.77.
Svetlana Kriveleva of the Unified Team won the women's shot-put gold, with China's Huang HD getting the silver and Germany's Kathrin Neimke the bronze.
Andrey Perlov of the Unified Team won the men's 50-kilometer walk in 3:50:13. Carlos Mercenario of Mexico won the silver and Ronald Weigel of Germany took the bronze. Carl Schueler, a Frostburg State graduate who lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., was the leading American finisher in 23rd place.
"The heat was brutal," Schueler said. "I'm happy to finish. Finishing is a source of pride for me. I probably lost about 15 pounds in this race."
Bubka didn't lose any weight in the pole vault, just a few more dollars in endorsement and appearance fees. The man who creates world records with the dexterity of a grocer slicing cheese, simply ran out of luck and time.
Facing a two-minute time limit on each vault, Bubka was distracted and rushed. He somehow lost 25 seconds on his first jump at 18-8 1/2 . And lost even more time before his second miss, when he asked for the pole vault bar and standards to be moved a few feet from the pit.
"Most of us had problems with the swirling wind around the field and the run-up, and I was definitely one of them," Bubka said. "Maybe I took too long to prepare for each jump. To me, it looked like the watch was running faster than usual."
Bubka then passed to the next height, 18-10 1/2 , kicked the bar with his left foot, and then calmly walked from the pit. He packed his poles and equipment bags and left.
"The biggest mistake I made was not using a hard enough pole in my third attempt," he said.
The other vaulters accepted Bubka's explanations and his excuses.
"I think everyone understands who Bubka is," Trandenkov said. "Something like this can happen to anyone."
American Tim Bright, the only other vaulter to fail to clear a height, said Bubka's misses proved "everything is possible."
"This is just the pole vault," Bright said. "It's not a big deal. You put yourself up too high, you can have a big fall."
But on the night Bubka fell, Tarasov soared. Despite the gold, he was overshadowed by three misses. He didn't seem to mind.
"In a little time, the events surrounding Bubka will be forgotten," he said. "But the gold medal will remain."