With less than a week until the 2016 Olympic Triple Jump competitions begin the latest Triple Jump Legend under the spotlight is the most decorated Olympic Triple Jumper of all time – with 3 Olympic golds and 1 silver medal to his name – the great Viktor Saneyev.
Saneyev was born on 3 October 1945 in Sukhumi, Georgia, and started his athletics career as a High Jumper before switching to the Triple Jump as a 16 year old in 1962. The following year his PB was 14.88m and in November 1964 he reached a best of 15.78m, just 11cm of the World Junior Record.
Competing for the Soviet Union, Saneyev’s first major championships were the 1968 Olympics held in the high altitude of Mexico City and a competition that saw 5 improvements on the 1960 17.03m World Record of Josef Schmidt. With a qualification standard of 16.10m, Saneyev qualified automatically with his opening leap of 16.22m before watching Italy’s Giuseppe Gentile set a new WR mark of 17.10m with his 2nd qualifying jump. In the final Gentile carried on where he’d left off the day before as he opened with another WR of 17.22m. Saneyev then produced the first of 3 outdoor World Records in his career as leapt 17.23m in Round 3, but his lead was short-lived as Brazil’s Nelson Prudêncio improved to another WR with 17.27m in round 4. With his last attempt Saneyev bounded out to another WR of 17.39m (a mark that remained the Olympic Record for 20 years) and his first Olympic gold medal.
The following year in Athens, Greece, he won his first European Outdoor Championships with a windy 17.34w ahead of Hungary’s Zoltán Cziffra (16.85m) and East Germany’s Klaus Neumann (16.68m). In 1970 Saneyev won the first of 6 European Indoor titles with a new World Indoor Record of 16.95i in Vienna, Austria, ahead of East Germany’s Jörg Drehmel (16.74i) and Romania’s Şerban Ciochină (16.47i). He repeated this with victory in the 1971 event in Sofia, Buglaria, winning on countback with 16.83i from Carol Corbu of Romania and fellow Soviet Gennadiy Savlevich (16.24i). Later in 1971 he suffered his first defeat at a major championships as he took silver in the European Outdoor Championships in Helsinki, Finland, with 17.10w behind Drehmel’s 17.16w as Corbu took bronze with 16.87m. Also during 1971 he lost his World Record as 19 year old Pedro Pérez of Cuba jumped 17.40m in taking victory at the Pan American Games in Cali, Colombia.
In 1972 Saneyev completed a hat-trick of European Indoor victories in Grenoble, France, leaping a new World Indoor Record of 16.97i ahead of Corbu (16.89i) and Soviet Union’s Valentin Schevchenko (16.73i). In Munich later that year he would come up against World Record holder Pérez and European Outdoor champion Drehmel in an attempt to retain his Olympic crown. With a best of just 15.72m during qualifying, however, Pérez came 24th and missed out on the final. During that final Saneyev set out his stall with his opening jump, a massive 17.35m, his best since Mexico City. Drehmel responded with 17.02m with his 2nd round leap, but saved his best until round 5 – a new PB of 17.31m, but just 4cm shy of Saneyev. He couldn’t improve in round 6, and with Prudêncio leaping 17.05m with his last attempt to secure bronze, Saneyev had successfully retained the Men’s Olympic Triple Jump title. To cap off the year he took back the World Record exactly 4 years to the day since he first broke it, as he recorded 17.44m in his hometown of Sukhumi.
Saneyev regained the European Outdoor title in 1974 setting a CR of 17.23m in Rome, Italy, ahead of Corbu (16.68m) and Poland’s Andrzej Sontag (16.61m) as reigning champion Drehmel finished 4th with 16.54m. In early 1975 he took his 4th European Indoor title, taking victory in Katowice, Poland, with 17.01i ahead of Poland’s Michał Joachimowski (16.90i) and fellow Soviet Gennadiy Besonov (16.78i). However, later that year he lost the World Record once more as Brazil’s João Carlos de Oliveira produced a massive 17.89m at the Pan American Games in Mexico City. Once again Saneyev would face a new World Record holder in the Olympic Games as he headed to Montreal in 1976.
Saneyev began 1976 by taking yet another European Indoor crown in Munich, West Germany, with a new World Indoor Record of 17.10i head of Corbu (16.75i) and France’s Bernard Lamitié (16.68i). He went on to better his World Indoor mark with 17.16i that winter. On to Montreal and his 3rd Olympic Games. Going into the 3rd round Saneyev’s 16.71m trialled former World Record holder Pérez, out to make amends from his 1972 disaster, who led with 16.81m ahead of America’s James Butts (16.76m). With his 3rd round leap de Oliveira, recovering from stomach surgery just before the games, reached out to 16.85m, but Saneyev showed his class as he took the lead with 17.06m. Butts responded with 17.18m in round 4, but Saneyev was not just a talented jumper – he was a determined one – and back he came with 17.29m in round 5. It was good enough to complete a hat-trick of Triple Jump titles, the only man to ever achieve the feat, ahead of Butts and World Record holder de Oliveira, who improved to 16.90m with his last round jump.
In 1977 he won his 6th and final European Indoor title in San Sebastián, Spain, with a winning distance of 16.65i. The man in 2nd place, fellow Soviet Jaak Uudmäe (16.46i), would play a major part in Saneyev’s final Olympic Games 3 years later. France’s Lamitié again took bronze (16.45i). Later that year Saneyev underwent an achilles operation but he returned in 1978 as, having already achieved a hat-trick of Olympic victories, he attempted to achieve a similar feat of European Outdoor titles in Prague, Czechoslavakia (now Czech Republic). Leading throughout the competition with jumps of 16.81m in round 1, 16.92m in round 4 and 16.93m in round 5, he seemed on course for yet another imperious major championships display. In the last round, however, relative unknown Miloš Srejović of Yugoslavia bettered Saneyev’s mark by just 1cm to deny the Soviet yet another crown. Anatoliy Piskulin of the Soviet Union took bronze with 16.87m.
Saneyev had one major title left to contend and it turned out to be the most controversial of his career. The 1980 Olympic Games were held in Moscow, Russia, and 34 year old Saneyev was given the honour of carrying the Olympic torch into the Central Lenin Stadium, completing around 300 metres before handing over to Sergei Belov, a member of the Soviet Union Basketball team, who lit the Olympic cauldron.
In the Triple Jump final Saneyev’s efforts to secure a 4th Olympic title fell just short as he took silver with his last round 17.24m behind Uudmäe’s 17.35m, de Oliveira repeating his bronze medal performance of Montreal with 17.22m. The competition, however, was clearly tainted by dubious officiating and Saneyev’s claims later that his final jump was in excess of Uudmäe’s mark seem to be backed up from footage of the event. However, de Oliveira and Australia’s Ian Campbell were also cheated out of long valid jumps by unfounded claims of fouls by the officials. The latter having a massive 4th round effort discounted for “scrapping” at the end of his step phase (a rule later abolished as it gave no benefit to a jumper) when clearly beyond the Olympic Record and having only one legal jump attributed to him, 16.72m in the 2nd round to place him 5th behind Great Britain’s Keith Connor (16.87m). Australian sports writer Roy Masters wrote in his book Higher, Richer, Sleazier that the judging was the result of a dispute between Mizuno, Adidas and the IOC over the footwear worn by the flame bearers in the Olympic Opening Ceremony. After the athletes wore Adidas, instead of the agreed Mizuno footwear, Masters alleges a deal was done to ensure Soviet athletes wearing Mizuno sportswear were successful in certain events in the games, including the Triple Jump.
Following the 1980 Olympic Games Saneyev retired and became part of Soviet Union National Jumps coaching programme before heading off to New Zealand to coach as the Communist block within Europe collapsed. Six years later he moved on to Australia with his family and he still lives in the Sydney area. In 2013 he was inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame.
Over his career Viktor Saneyev won 3 Olympic gold medals and 1 silver, 2 European golds and 2 silvers, 6 European Indoor titles, and set 3 Outdoor and 4 Indoor World Records. Competing in an era before World Championship events, Saneyev is, without doubt, the most decorated and successful Triple Jumper of all-time. The greatest of all Triple Jump Legends.