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The Man Who Broke The World Record For Pole Vaulting—35 Different Times

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The Ukrainian pole vaulter Sergey Bubka was virtually unknown before he won the 1983 World Championship at just 19. But in the years that followed, he became the most famous name in the sport, earning six consecutive world titles and breaking the world record for highest pole vault a total of 35 times.

That staggering statistic is certainly a testament to Bubka's innate athleticism and unique ability. He vaulted with a heavier pole to generate greater force and, most notably, used his strength to carry the pole from the very end, unlike most of his competition, for better leverage. But the sheer quantity of records he claimed—17 set indoors and 18 outside—was also the result of deliberate decisions and savvy financial planning.

Bubka set his first world record a year after winning his first World Championship—besting France's Thierry Vigneron's 5.83m record by two centimeters. But it quickly became clear that Bubka was too good—competitions became rote displays of Bubka's talent and were thus a bit uninteresting because there was no chance for the other athletes to match his prowess. Eventually, sponsors stopped offering the traditional win bonuses that track and field athletes rely on.

So Nike started paying Bubka to essentially compete against himself, offering world record bonuses as high as $100,000. He made the smart business decision to spend the next decade breaking records as often and incrementally as possible, at one point setting 14 records over the course of just a couple years. Only once did he lose the world record title—and even then it was a brief concession. At an August 1984 track meet in Rome, previous record-holder Vigneron passed Bubka's standing record of 5.90m—only to have Bubka regain the record with a 5.94m vault just a few minutes later.

Watch a compilation of all Sergey Bubka's outdoor records.

After Bubka's inevitable decline in the late '90s, fans were left wondering whether the intentionally incremental strategy kept him from reaching his full potential while at his physical peak. His ultimate record of 6.15m (over 20 feet 2 inches) was long thought unreachable. But had he not been so committed to breaking records a mere centimeter at a time, perhaps he would have aimed higher—literally—while he still could. And, indeed, in 2014, in the same city where Bubka set his final record 21 years before, 27-year-old Frenchmen Renaud Lavillenie set a new record of 6.16m, while Bubka watched from the stands.

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Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
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Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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