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They’re Still at the Top of the Game : Track and field: Hurdler Greg Foster, pole vaulter Sergei Bubka were No. 1 in 1983, No. 1 Thursday in World meet.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even though Greg Foster was ranked No. 1 in the world in the high hurdles, there was a question during track and field’s first World Championships at Helsinki, Finland, eight years ago whether the 25-year-old veteran had the character to win a major title. There was only one question about 19-year-old Soviet pole vaulter Sergei Bubka: Who was he?

Today, virtually everyone who has read a sports section knows Bubka, the first vaulter to clear 20 feet and a man who has broken the world record 28 times. But Foster, though he no doubt will be ranked No. 1 in the world for the fifth time this year, still has not outrun all of his critics.

While that might have been a source of irritation to the two-time NCAA champion from UCLA early in his career, it was far from his thoughts Thursday night at the National Stadium, where he added a gold medal in the third World Championships to those he won in the 110-meter high hurdles at Helsinki in 1983 and at Rome in 1987. Moments after his award ceremony, he was followed to the top level of the victory stand by Bubka, another three-time champion.

It had been a good day for former champions. Germany’s Martina Hellmann, the 1983 and 1987 gold medalist in the discus, was one of four women who threw far enough to qualify automatically for today’s final, and Carl Lewis, the 1983 and 1987 champion in the long jump, was the leading qualifier with a second jump of 28 feet 1 inch.

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Lewis’ first jump was not measured because of a foul, but it might have challenged Bob Beamon’s 23-year-old world record of 29-2 1/2.

“Don’t ask me how long that one was,” said Lewis, who broke the world record while winning the 100 meters in 9.86 seconds Sunday.

His manager, Joe Douglas of the Santa Monica Track Club, estimated that the jump at least equaled the world record.

“Carl’s not playing,” he said. “I haven’t seen him this serious since 1984.”

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Today, when he competes in the long jump final, might be Lewis’ day.

But Thursday belonged to Foster and Bubka. They were linked not only by the gold medals they won but also by the adversity they have been forced to overcome. It has been a traumatic summer for both.

Six years ago, Foster’s mother, Izola, was killed in an automobile accident near her home in Maywood, Ill. When he won the gold medal two years later at Rome, he dedicated it to her.

Earlier this summer, Foster arrived late on the European track and field circuit because he had to return to Illinois to testify on behalf of his family in the suit filed against the driver of the other car.

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“It reopened all of the old wounds,” said his longtime friend and adviser, Bob Kersee. “He had to go to court, look at the pictures of the accident and talk about his mother. When he came to Europe, he was emotional about it. But he handled it.”

On the way to the airport in Moscow last week to catch a flight for Tokyo, Bubka watched out his car window as tanks rolled toward the city on the second day of the attempted coup. He spoke upon arriving here of the concern he had for the safety of his wife and two sons, who were in Moscow.

Nine days later, his wife, Lillia, and his sons, Vitaly, 6, and Sergei, 4, were at the National Stadium to see him compete for the first time in a major event outside the Soviet Union.

They saw a classic confrontation between Bubka and the only man who can beat him, Sergei Bubka. That was the conclusion drawn by Istvan Bagyula, a Hungarian who attends George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

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“I think it wasn’t possible for anybody else here to win this competition,” Bagyula said. “But Sergei could have lost it to somebody.”

Bubka, 27, said the odds of losing were “50-50" after he aggravated a heel injury that has troubled him for the last month. He had a pain-killing injection Thursday afternoon, but said it wore off shortly after he cleared his first height, 18-8 1/2.

He left the field for another shot, then returned to miss at 19-4 1/4 and 19-6 1/4. Meantime, Bagyula had cleared 19-4 1/4 and three others had cleared 18-10 1/2. Limping badly, Bubka had one attempt left at 19-6 1/4 to win. If he missed, he would finish sixth.

Just as he had done in the 1988 Olympic Games at Seoul, South Korea, where his final jump determined whether he would finish first or fifth, he came through.

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“You are always hoping,” Bagyula said of his thoughts as Bubka approached his final jump. “But he’s so much better than us that it’s unrealistic to think of beating him, even with his injury,”

Foster, 33, had an even closer call.

He ran his second-fastest time, 13.06 seconds, but that also was the time recorded for U.S. teammate Jack Pierce in a photo-finish. Officials ruled that Foster had won, literally, by a neck.

“As far as I’m concerned, we tied,” said Pierce, 28, of Marlton, N.J. “But I’m happy with the silver medal. I feel I’ve finally joined the class of the elite.”

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Foster, who lives in Chino Hills, is at the head of that class. But because he does not have an Olympic gold medal, finishing second in 1984 and failing to qualify for the U.S. team in 1988 because of an injury, critics claim his career is incomplete.

“That’s ridiculous,” Kersee said Thursday night. “The road to No. 1 in the high hurdles goes through Greg Foster. Anybody who expects to win next year at Barcelona is going to have to beat him. It’s about time he got the credit he’s due.”

But Foster seems no more sensitive about his Olympic misfortunes than he does about his balding head.

“It’s good as a goal, but I can’t say I’ve had a terrible career if I don’t win an Olympic gold medal next year,” he said. “That’s my last chance. I won’t be around in ’96. I’m definitely going to go out to win it. But if it doesn’t happen, I’m happy with all I’ve accomplished.”

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He might not be favored at Barcelona because two-time Olympic champion Roger Kingdom and Great Britain’s Colin Jackson probably will be in the field after suffering injuries this year.

A physically fit Bubka, however, will be a prohibitive favorite.

But that does not mean his future is certain. Because of the political situation at home, he might not even be a Soviet citizen. He is from the Ukraine, which has declared its independence.

“For me, it’s important to participate in Barcelona,” he said. “Under which flag, I don’t know.”

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