Philip Barker

Many sports have taken up the challenge of re-inventing their events in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Back in May, pole vault stars organised the "Ultimate Garden Clash". They observed social distancing in a competition by competing in their own back gardens. As viewers watched online, world record holder Armand Duplantis of Sweden, American two-time world champion Sam Kendricks and France’s 2012 Olympic champion Renaud Lavillenie attempted to vault five metres as many times as possible within 30 minutes. Lavillenie and Duplantis both achieved 36 clearances.

Three weeks later, Rio 2016 Olympic champion Katerina Stefanidi of Greece beat Pan-American silver medallist Katie Nageotte of the United States and Canada’s Commonwealth Games champion Alysha Newman in a competition held at their respective training bases.

It should have come as no surprise that pole vaulters had been able to adapt so readily to new circumstances. Back in the 1970s, it had been a pole vaulter who soared to victory in a new competition to decide the world’s greatest all-round athlete.

His name was Bob Seagren and he had won Olympic gold in 1968.

The competition was appropriately named "Superstars" and was tremendously popular around the world.

The man who dreamed the whole thing up was a champion star in his own right. Dick Button was a figure skating who won gold at the 1948 St Moritz Winter Olympics whilst still a teenager.

Mondo Duplantis and Renaud Lavillenie shared the honours in the first Ultimate Garden Clash ©World Athletics
Mondo Duplantis and Renaud Lavillenie shared the honours in the first Ultimate Garden Clash ©World Athletics

He won the Sullivan Award for the outstanding amateur athlete of 1949 but admitted: "It seemed a little ludicrous to me at the time. There were nine other kids in the class, all better athletes than I."

Button proved peerless in skating and won five consecutive World titles. Then in 1952 he won Olympic gold again in Oslo before turning professional.

He started his own production company and originally produced ice shows, but did not forget the idea of finding the finest all-round athlete.

In the 1960s, he was inspired when he saw a photo of dancer Edward Villella in Life magazine.

The magazine posed the question, ''Is this America’s best athlete?''

''That revitalized the idea,'' said Button, who sat down with his business partner Paul Feigay and devised a pitch. Originally it fell on deaf ears, but when the ABC network lost the rights to show National Basketball Association games, it was snapped up by sports executives Roone Arledge and Barry Frank.

The first competition was set for April 1973 and took place in the Florida resort of Rotonda West.

The line-up included skier Jean-Claude Killy, tennis star Rod Laver and Joe Frazier, who earlier that year had lost his world heavyweight crown to George Foreman. Seagren had been a late addition to the competition when jockey Willie Shoemaker pulled out with an injury.

The total prize fund was $122,000 (£93,000/€104,000) from which competitors received $300 (£239/€255) for every point achieved. There was a $25,000 (£19,000/€21,200) bonus for the winner of the competition. Each competitor was allowed to choose seven events from the 10 on offer but was barred from taking part in their speciality.

Bob Seagren gained more fame for his exploits on Superstars than being an Olympic pole vault champion ©Getty Images
Bob Seagren gained more fame for his exploits on Superstars than being an Olympic pole vault champion ©Getty Images

"What you are going to see here is literally a sports event like none that has ever occurred before a meeting of the superstars at the summit.” ABC television host Jim McKay told viewers as the contestants were introduced to the soundtrack from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar.

Spectators were bussed from event to event and Sports Illustrated reported that ABC staff "packed the crowd together to make it look larger, then they gave instructions about when to cheer."

Competition began in the open-air swimming pool. The first heat was won by racing driver Peter Revson ahead of Killy and Seagren. As they touched at the finish, Frazier had just turned for his second length of the pool. "Trouble staying in my lane? I had trouble staying in the water", he reflected ruefully.

"This is not kidding around, there’s a lot of money on the line and you can bet a lot of pride", McKay said.

Seagren’s eventual margin of victory was 21 points over Killy.

Years later, Seagren told America’s National Public Radio: "After 12 years of pole vaulting all over the world, I could walk through an airport and nobody would say anything. But right after The Superstars aired, it was amazing, the people that would come up to me."

In years to come other vaulters such as Kjell Isaksson of Sweden would also be very successful.

Later in 1973, the format was launched in Europe with a competition at the Crystal Palace sports centre in southern London.

Formula One racing driver Jackie Stewart, 1966 world cup winning footballer Bobby Moore, Welsh rugby union star Barry John and golfer Tony Jacklin all lined up but the competition was won by David Hemery, 400m hurdles gold medallist at the 1968 Olympics.

Supremely fit, Hemery excelled in the gym tests which included a weightlifting competition. This was conducted using the O’Carroll Formula which permitted contestants of different weights to compete against one another.

A programme for the British version of Superstars ©Ferguson Electronics
A programme for the British version of Superstars ©Ferguson Electronics

As interest grew, a Europe-wide competition was introduced. Heats were held across the continent, culminating in a grand final.

In an era of strict amateur regulations, many Olympic champions were keen to take part. Among them were speed skating’s Ard Schenk, a triple gold medallist in 1972, hurdler Guy Drut and steeplechaser Anders Gärderud, both champions at the Montreal Olympics. Downhill racer Franz Klammer and ski jumper Karl Schnabl, who had delighted their Austrian public with victory at the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Olympics, were also enthusiastic participants.

There came Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt from Formula One, legendary Italian motorcyclist Giacomo Agostini and even OJ Simpson, who won the United States competition in 1975.

More surprising perhaps was the presence of top-line footballers. Dutch star Ruud Krol was then a major figure in the Ajax side, while Björn Nordqvist of Sweden and Belgian Paul Van Himst had also appeared in the World Cup.

There was the ever-present danger that one of these stars might suffer serious injury. Television commentator David Vine described a famous incident involving Kevin Keegan, then a star player with Liverpool, in cycling.

"Keegan’s back wheel skids to the inside of the track, the front wheel whips back on itself and Keegan is catapulted as if he’s been shot out of a cannon," recalled Vine.

Despite his fall, Keegan refused to retire from the competition and ended up on top of the standings.

By 1976, Superstars had become so successful that a "World Championship" was organised at Callaway Gardens resort in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

The line-up included Seagren, and Isaksson. Both men performed superbly and Seagren added the world title ahead of his fellow vaulter. The late Sir Peter Snell, a middle-distance runner and New Zealand’s double gold medallist at the last Tokyo Olympics and then 37 years of age, finished third.

Daley Thompson was among the Olympic champions to take part in the show ©Getty Images
Daley Thompson was among the Olympic champions to take part in the show ©Getty Images

In the late 1970s, a new face emerged. He was Canadian Brian Budd, a striker with the Vancouver Whitecaps in the fledgling North American Soccer League (NASL) He excelled in the gym tests which included squat thrusts and dips and built a reputation which caught the eye of a distinguished rival.

Budd was just a spectator at a Superstars competition in the Welsh town of Cwmbran which featured judoka Brian Jacks and Olympic decathlon champion Daley Thompson.

"Bring on Brian Budd, I want to see Brian Budd!" called out Thompson after spotting the Canadian in the crowd.

Budd accepted the challenge and bounded the stage, still in his street clothes, kicked off his shoes and produced a remarkable demonstration of dips which eclipsed Thompson’s own total in the competition.

Budd eventually won the world title three times and under a rule introduced at the time, he was banned from competing further.

A women’s event was also introduced in the late 1970s and a "Superteams" event had a similar format.

In the 1980s, Brian Hooper, a pole vaulter who won two Commonwealth Games bronze medals, became the only European to win the World Superstars title.

By the middle of the decade, it became more difficult to sign up the big names because of the increased insurance needed. The competition has been revived since, and Hooper returned to compete aged 50, but it has never quite recaptured the heyday of the 197-s and early 1980s.

In that golden decade, only two stars were said to have turned the organisers down. One was American football star "Broadway Joe" Namath. The other was Muhammad Ali.