Track Coach

TC244 Editorial Column

From the Editor – RUSS EBBETS


The triple jump was the inaugural event at the 1896 Olympics. James Connolly of the USA stepped, stepped and jumped into Olympic history with a 45-foot “triple” jump to win the silver medal given to the first place winner. It wasn’t until 1912 with the formation of the IAAF that the event was standardized to the hop, step and jump used today.

There is no consensus as to the exact origins of the triple jump. Ancient Greeks contested a three-jump event at the original Olympics but it was believed to be a hop-hop-hop all done from the same leg. The Roman Legions trained with hopping exercises that were used to improve footwork preparing them for the hand-to-hand combat battles of the day.

Different countries contested multiple jump events at folk festivals over the last few centuries. Some scholars believe the modern triple jump is actually an outgrowth of the children’s game of hopscotch that may, in part, explain why the standing high jump, long jump and triple jump events were contested in the inaugural Modern Olympic programs.

The early triple jump successes of Americans at the first three Olympiads was not a harbinger of great things to come. The U.S. team won more triple jump first place medals in those first three Olympiads than they would win triple jump medals, of any kind, over the next 80 years.

In 1983, a triple jump lecture, The Problems of the Triple Jump, was given by Leonid Shcherbakov at the Institute of Sport and Physical Culture in Moscow, I was in attendance through a tour arranged by Concordia University, Montreal. Shcherbakov stood before us expressionless as the translator introduced him and detailed his career accomplishments. Shcherbakov was a two-time Olympian, 1952 silver medalist (losing to legendary Brazilian jumper Adhemar da Silva), a former world record holder in the event, four-time European champion, and by 1983 a Soviet coach.

The teaching ability of former athletes can be a mixed bag. Some can detail the nuances of sport with observations and insights that offer a peek behind the curtain of athletic genius. And sometimes the genius of athletic ability, the intuitive instincts of physical gifts only translates to a muddled presentation of this and that, with no rhyme or reason. Fortunately, for this class, we got the athletic genius.

Shcherbakov’s presentation was simple, straightforward and matter of fact. His statements were concise, and their translation came out as almost poetic. His grasp of the event was immediately evident as he systematically deconstructed “the problems” with discussions of talent identification, essential fundamentals, technical execution, developmental benchmarks and flaw corrections. His examples were clearly presented and unified his presentation. Throughout this presentation he frequently referenced “The American Method.”

My brother was an accomplished triple jumper in high school. With six years of coaching under my belt I had more than a rudimentary understanding of the event. Nonetheless the fact that there was an “American Method” was news to me. The triple jump was one of those events the U.S. has had minimal success since the early Olympiads, and now, oddly, we had a “method?”

My curiosity finally got the better of me. I turned to the coach next to me and asked, “What is the American Method?” He had no clue. I waited for a pause, raised my hand and forced myself to ask, “the stupid question.”

Shcherbakov had a monosyllabic mastery of English. As the translator began to translate my question Shcherbakov waved her off, signaling that he understood what I was asking. He raised his hands in front of him, roughly shoulder width apart and said, “The American method – with the short step,” and burst out laughing. The translator laughed, the class laughed and even though the joke was on me, I laughed too. Two points for Shcherbakov.

About 12 months later Al Joyner mastered “the short step” and helped to redefine the American Method. Over the next 40 years the American men have been an ever-present, if not dominant force in the event with an extensive list of medalists at the World Championships and Olympic Games. Roughly 40% of the top 25 all-time men’s marks are now from Americans. Live and learn.

Shcherbakov taught and coached throughout his post-athletic career in the Soviet Union, Algeria and Cuba. He is credited with helping Cuba’s Pedro Perez break Viktor Saneyev’s triple jump world record in 1971.

In this issue will be a Triple Jump Roundtable with some of the coaches who have contributed greatly to the success the U.S. has enjoyed over the last few decades, further refining the “American Method.”