press pass _revisedThis was my father’s identity card for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Through his work for NBC News, and NBC’s sustained relationship to the Olympic Games, I was a fan of the greatest sports competition in the world. I was only one years-old at the time of the Tokyo Olympic Games, and of course remember nothing of it. But come 2020, when the Summer Games return to Tokyo, I will be there.

© Roy Tomizawa and The Olympians from 2015 onwards. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of material within this blog without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Roy Tomizawa and The Olympians with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
LCFC in Thailand
The Leicester City Football Club in Bangkok, Thailand, attending chairman Vichai’s funeral.

Thirteen members of Premier League’s Leicester City Foxes arrived in Bangkok, Thailand for the funeral of their club’s owner and chairman, Khun Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Manager Claude Puel, strikers Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki, team captain Wes Morgan and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel were among the visitors who flew the 12 hours from England on a chartered flight that left soon after their victory against Cardiff City on Saturday.

The players paid their respects during the second day of seven dedicated to the club owner’s funeral, the first three days sponsored by the Thai Royal family.

While the Thai tycoon, a man who made his riches in duty free shopping, did not live a flamboyant or public life in Thailand, he did indeed have a significant impact on the Thai psyche and may very well have a great impact on the future of Thai football.

Thai Pride: The Guardian quoted a few Thais who are grateful to what Vichai has meant to Thailand and Thai football.

“It’s Thailand’s team,” said Chatworachet Sae-Kow, a Leicester City fan in Bangkok. “It brought fame to Thailand when they won [the title]. He carried the Thai flag with him and made people know more about Thailand.

“I could feel your commitment and dedication to what you do, and the warmth and love you had for me,” said Kawin Thamsatchanan, goalkeeper for the Thai national team who plays for Oud-Heverlee Leuven – the Belgium football club also owned by Vichai. “Thank you for the opportunity and confidence in me.”

Said Anutin Charnvirakul, head of the Bhumjai Thai political party, “He is a self-made man, worked hard and loved friends dearly. We just lost someone who made big contributions to the public. I am sure his legacy will live on.”

King Power Thai Power Project: Part of Vichai’s legacy will be the ways his company has promoted football in Thailand. According to The Bangkok Post, one component of the project is “Sports Power,” in which King Power is investing 200 million baht earmarked to build artifical turf fields at an international standard at schools across Thailand, targeting 100 schools by 2022.

Additionally, the project will contribute one million soccer balls ensuring young Thais of the most important article required to play. The balls and the fields will undoubtedly contribute to the general development of the sport in the Kingdom.

Fox Hunt: King Power is also sponsoring a scholarship program for promising Thai footballers under 15 years of age. According to The Nation, King Power selects top teenage football talent. It takes a year to identify and evaluate, but the stakes are high – world-class training for 30 months at Ratcliffe College in the UK. King Power foots the bill of about Bt15 million for one player, but the potential for rapid development of their talent is great. Leicester City’s chairman, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, son of chairman Vichai, said “One of the most important experience for then will be sports science which is different from ours. They will also learn to depend on themselves too as great self disciplinary will lead them to succeed.”

Said Watcharaphong Tunkitjalorn, a 15-year-old midfielder from Suphanburi Sports School who was selected in year two of the program, “I dream of leading a Thai national team to the World Cup. It’s so hard to believe that I have been selected and I will learn as much as possible when I’m there.”

King Power and the Leicester City Foxes did not just make dreams possible in England. They are doing that in Thailand as well.

Vichai and Leicester City Premier League Champions
Out of nowhere: Vichai’s footmen stunned the world. Credit: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/GETTY IMAGE

Leicester City is famous for King Richard III, killed in the waning days of the War of the Roses and buried in Greyfriars Friary in Leicester.

But the Shakespearian take on the Leicester City Football Club (LCFC) and its famous run to the Premier League Championship in 2015 is less King Richard III’s “A horse! My kingdom for a horse,” and more King Henry V’s “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

The untimely death of LCFC’s chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha on October 27, 2018, was a sad story for the fans of LCFC and the community of Leicester City. But the global outpouring of grief for the family of Srivaddhanaprabha and LCFC fans is due to the historic run of the LCFC to the Premier League championship in the 2015-2016 season.

In arguably the most popular football league in the world, England’s Premier League has had, really, only four teams that win the championship: Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. There has been only two teams outside of those four which have won the championship since the start of the Premier League in 1992. One of those is Leicester City, a team that has historically spent more time in lower divisions, and has never come close to the upper echelons of English football, and was 5,000 to 1 odds to become champions that year.

And yet, the Leicester City Foxes defied those odds.

English football is organized through a series of leagues that form a pyramid, the Premier League showcasing the best teams in England, followed by The English Football League, which has three levels: The Championship, League One and League Two. Based on performance, teams get promoted or demoted into leagues. Part of the incredible story of the LCFC is that Leicester City were in League One in 2008. And yet, in only 7 years, the Foxes climbed through two lower leagues to get to the Premier League in 2014. That season started poorly for Leicester City, and the team was threatened with demotion back to The Championship League, until they staged The Great Escape, winning seven of their final nine matches in 2015 to escape relegation.

Despite their great finish to stay in the Premier League, no one had any idea that Leicester City would become the most talked about football team in the world in the 2015-2016 campaign. Below are the details of Leicester City’s incredible run, which included a change in managers and the record-breaking goal-scoring feats of LCFC striker, Jamie Vardy.

  • Jul 13, 2015: Italian Claudio Ranieri becomes manager of the LCFC after the sacking of Nigel Pearson, whose issues off the field became untenable.
  • Aug 8: Leicester City 4 – Sunderland 2 (W) – first victory of the season
  • Sep 13: Leicester City 3 – Aston Villa 2 (W) come from 0-2 to win, is in second place behind Manchester City
  • Sept 19: Stoke City 2 – Leicester City 2 (T) down 0-2 and comes back to tie
  • Sept 26: Leicester City 2 – Arsenal 5 (L) drops LC to 8th place
  • Oct 3: Norwich City 1 – Leicester City 2 (W)
  • Oct 17: Southampton 2 – Leicester City 2 (T) again come back from 2 down; Jamie Vardy scores both, for goals in sixth game in a row
  • Oct 24: Leicester City 1 – Crystal Palace 0 (W) Vardy connects for 7th game in a row, LCFC climbs back up to 5th.
  • Nov 21: Newcastle United 0 – Leicester City 3 (W) Vardy scores the first goal and ties league record of goals in 10 consecutive games; LCFC moves to third, ahead of Manchester United
  • Nov 28: Leicester City 1 – Manchester United (T) Vardy scores the first goal to break the league record of goals scored in consecutive games – 11
Jamie Vardy
Jamie Vardy
  • Dec 26: Liverpool 1 – Leicester City 0 (L) After winning the next three, LCFC suffers their only their second loss of the season
  • Jan 23, 2016: Leicester City 3 – Stoke City 0 (W) After drawing against Manchester City and Bournemouth to reach 2nd place, LC defeats Stoke City convincingly to assume first place
  • Feb 2: Leicester City 2 – Liverpool 0 (W)
  • Feb 6: Manchester City 1 – Leicester City 3 (W)
  • Feb 14: Arsenal 2 – Leicester City 1 (L) Leicester City loses their third match of the season, but holding onto slim lead over Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. It is the last time the Foxes will lose in 2015.
  • Feb 27: Leicester City 1 – Norwich City 0 (W) in 89th minute Vardy scores the winning goal
  • Mar 1: Leicester City 2 – West Bromwich Albion 2 (T)
  • Mar 5: Watford 0 – Leicester City 1 (W)
  • Mar 14: Leicester City 1 – Newcastle United 0 (W)
  • Mar 19: Crystal Palace 0 – Leicester City 1 (W)
  • Apr 3: Leicester City 1 – Southampton 0 (W)
  • Apr 10: Sunderland 0 – Leicester City 2 (W)
  • Apr 17: Leicester City 2 – West Ham 2 United (T)
  • Apr 24: Leicester City 4 – Swansea City 0 (W) – 7points ahead of Hotspur, need 3 more for the title
  • May 1: Manchester United 1 – Leicester City 1 (T)
  • May 2: Tottenham 2 – Chelsea 2 (T) – Tottenham is up 2-0 at half-time, but Chelsea comes back to equalize, which means The Leicester City Foxes are the champions of the Premier League.
  • May 7: Leicester City 3 – Everton 1 (W)
  • May 15: Chelsea 1 – Leicester City 1 (T)


RIP Vichai

“Brighton for Chilwell again…and Graaay…Goal for Leicester City!” shouted the play-by-play announcer as Demarai Gray of Leicester City Football Club knocked a half volley into the Cardiff net. Gray immediately removed his shirt to reveal the words “For Vichai,” and then joined his teammates to celebrate with LCFC fans in their corner of Cardiff City Stadium.

“And the perfect tribute for their former chairman, who died so tragically a week ago, beautifully taken by Demarai Gray. And just look at the collective celebration, players and supporters alike.”

Demarai Gray celebrates goal against Cardiff Demarai Gray celebrates goal against Cardiff

Leicester City (LCFC) defeated Cardiff City on Saturday, November 4, 2018, in a somewhat meaningless game in the Premier League standings, but oh so meaningful to Leicester City and Premier League fans all over the world.

It was only a week ago on Saturday, October 27, when the routine turned into disaster as LCFC’s chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, boarded the team helicopter at the end of a Leicester City game from the middle of the LCFC pitch. Only moments later after barely making it out or the stadium, the helicopter spun out of control and crashed into the stadium parking lot in a ferocious ball of flames.

While players, staff and fans speculated, it took several hours before the press told the world what was suspected – Vichai, along with two members of Vichai’s staff, Nursara Suknamai and Kaveporn Punpare, pilot Eric Swaffer and the pilot’s friend, Izabela Roza Lechowicz, perished in the accident.

It has been a week of shock and tears for Leicester City fans, whose love for their former chairman is bottomless. Fans and experts credit Vichai with a turnaround that is, essentially, unprecedented in the Premier League. In 2010, Vichai was part of a consortium that purchased the English Football League Championship club Leicester City, and became chairman a year later.

Leicester City Cardiff City moment of silence Moment of silence before start of match between Leicester City and Cardiff City

Leicester City would then go on a run that is essentially unprecedented. The team made it to the top football league in England, the Premier League, and in the 2015-2016 campaign, despite being given a 5,000-to-1 shot of winning the league championship, decisively brought the title home to Leicester City. Imagine a Double AA team in America’s baseball farm system rising together to make it to Triple A ball, the Major Leagues, and then winning the American League East. In America, that’s not possible. But then again, no one thought Leicester City’s rise to the heights of England’s top league was possible either.

As one fan said after Vichai passed away, “he made us champions.”

FCLC’s chairman was also the founder of King Power, the dominant duty-free business in Thailand, which is the name that adorns the team’s stadium and jerseys. And while there has been resistance to foreign owners of Premier League football clubs in the past, Vichai helped bring a winning attitude to the team while demonstrating a powerful common touch, reaching out to the fan base in intimate ways. He would provide beer and food to fans in the stadium, handing them personally to them. He awarded 60 random season ticket holders free renewals this year on his 60th birthday, a special birthday for Asians.

“It’s a big thing for Leicester City, this,” said one elderly lady paying tribute outside King Power Stadium. “And he was the best bloke you could have. He never went without acknowledging you. He was OK giving you bacon sandwiches you know, your cup of tea before you went your breakfast.”

Gab Marcotti, senior writer for ESPN FC, remarked how unique Vichai was:

Without question Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, from the moment he took over Leicester City FC, well before the miracle and whatever else, he invested money in the club. He was also very clear about having a footprint in the community, donating money to local charities, taking time to stay and greet the fans before and after games. It’s very easy to be cynical about these billionaires who buy Premier League clubs. Is it just a play thing? Is it something where he wants a financial return? It might have been those things but it was also something he really lived for every match day.   It’s no coincidence that it led to his passing that he made the effort of coming over there, flying his helicopter onto the pitch, on and off before and after the game. Without question, he was one of the most beloved owners of the Premier League.

Vichai The Boss

A couple of days before the match with Cardiff City, LCFC manager, Claude Puel said that “The game is not important. The result is not important, but our desire, our actions to give our best on the pitch to honour our chairman, is the most important thing. About our conviction, our focus, we will be ready. I am confident the players can give their best.”

At the end of the match with Cardiff City, happy they could win the game for their beloved chairman, the team stood together in front of their fans. As Cardiff City Stadium emptied out, the LCFC fans in their corner of the stadium, many wearing white t-shirts with Vichai’s face boldly saying “The Boss,” stood and sang Leicester City songs, held up flags of Thailand, chanting “Vi-chai.”

For a long time, amidst the empty stadium, the players and fans communed, trying their best to say good bye. The players finally parted, and made their way to the locker room to begin preparations for a long flight to Bangkok, Thailand to attend the funeral for their chairman.


head tackle football

It was November 1982, and I was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, in the nosebleed seats of Franklin Field with friends, watching our Quakers fritter away a 20-0 lead against Harvard, which took the lead 21-20 late in the game.

With less than 2 minutes to play, the Quakers somehow make a miraculous comeback – missing a field goal but still getting the roughing the kicker call, and making a winning field goal with zero seconds on the clock.

It was a euphoric moment for students at Penn on that cool Autumn afternoon. With that victory, Penn won it’s first Ivy League championship in 26 years. Did we expect Penn to go on to win four more Ivy titles in a row? Did anyone outside of Penn care? In college-football-mad-America, probably not. But we the students were pleased as punch – we could shout “Kill ’em Quakers!” with glee and pride while enjoying the irony.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Call for a Boycott

And then, 36 years later, I’m listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, and feel this tightening of the stomach as my writer hero rips into my alma mater, reliving a speech he gave to Penn students in 2013 that football was dangerous, citing the death of Penn student and varsity football player, Owen Thomas. Gladwell called for Penn students to boycott football, that we were too smart to be so ignorant of the inherent risk of the game.

Well, it’s your classmates who are dying, right? It’s your classmates who are putting their lives at risk by playing this game. I think all of you has to think about, has to consider boycotting football games at Penn and I think you have to convince your friends to boycott football games at Penn and I think you have to picket outside football games at Penn. And I think you have to go to the administrators of this university and you have to ask them why is a world-class institution, one of the finest universities of higher learning in this planet, exposing its own students to the risk of injury and death? And if they ask for proof, tell them you don’t need proof. Sometimes proof is just another word for letting people suffer. Thank you.

The reaction at Penn was mixed and muted. A Wharton senior who was also on the Penn football team, John Onwualu, said that “the way [Gladwell] expressed his opinions was inappropriate and disrespectful for a speech like that.”

Dartmouth Leads the Way

Gladwell’s intent was to be provocative. Perhaps he was aware of the movement taking place in another part of the Ivy League when he broadcasted this podcast earlier this year. According to a New York Times article called “The Ivy League Becomes the Future of Football,” the coach of the Big Green of Dartmouth began instituting changes to the way the team practices that impacted not only the number of injuries sustained during the season, but also the team’s performance. More significantly, Dartmouth’s practices have influenced how football players all over the country, at the college and professional level train. Here’s a close look at two that are revolutionizing football:

No Tackle Practice: When the head is hit or shaken countless times, the brain is physically impacted and over time, this repeated head trauma can lead to degenerative brain disorders, life-threatening disorders, like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). In 2010, the head coach of Dartmouth College’s football team, Buddy Teevens, decreed something very unique – the elimination of tackling in practice year round. As the Times’ article states, Teevens likes to say that a Dartmouth player will never get tackled by another Dartmouth player in his career there.

Remote-controlled Tackling Dummies: Looking for a way for his players to safely practice their tackling, Teevens helped develop a technological solution – remote-controlled dummies. Dubbed “mobile virtual players,” these MVPs are fast, able to change directions quickly, and can self-right themselves after getting tackled. In this manner, Teevens can arrange practices that allow his players to focus on tackling technique without the risk of injury to another player.

“The only times my guy tackle are ten times in games,” said Teevens in the video below. “It will allow them to be more proficient and successful. And concussive injury reduction is going to be huge for us.”

The Impact: Immediately after the implementation of the No Tackle policy, Dartmouth’s Big Green had mixed results, but trended positively. In 2011, 2013, and 2104, they always won their final three games of the season, displaying a late-season resiliency, before winning a share of the Ivy title in 2015.

Perhaps influenced by the fewer injuries and freshness of Dartmouth players, Ivy League coaches voted unanimously in March, 2016 to change a rule that results in the elimination of tackling in practices during the season throughout the conference.

At the same time, the Ivy League also voted to reduce injuries during kick-off returns, where 21% of all concussions were experienced, despite the fact that the kick-off return accounted for only 6% of all plays. The kick off allows players to get to full acceleration before hitting each other – imagine two accelerating cars smashing headfirst into each other. A rule change moved the kick-off to the forty yard line from the thirty-five, resulting in far more kicks unreturned. Two years of data showed a significant decrease in concussions during kick offs.

Buddy Teevens
Head coach of Dartmouth College football team, Buddy Teevens

The NFL is making changes, probably due to a fear of liability and diminished popularity over time. As the San Francisco Chronicle points out, participation in high school in the United States has been dropping since 2008, falling even more rapidly in California, probably because high school football players are significantly more likely to experience a concussion than baseball or basketball players in high school.

It may not seem like an existential crisis for football in America. But safety is growing in importance, as Teevens is quoted in the Times:

Beyond wanting to win, Teevens is motivated by a fear that an irreplaceable sport could die. “I think it’s too valuable a game to say, ‘Oh, we’ll do something else,’” he said. “But I also look at the data and the medical side of it. Something has to be done.”

Max Muncy
Max Muncy after his walk-off homer in the 18th inning of Game 3 of the 2018 World Series.

It was 30 minutes past midnight Friday night in Los Angeles. The game had been going for well over 7 hours. Up stepped tired veteran infielder, Max Muncy, who sent an opposite field home run to left center that won it for the Los Angeles Dodgers over the Boston Red Sox in game 3 of the 2018 World Series.

In Tokyo, Japanese fans watched Kenta Maeda play a pivotal role pitching shut out ball in the 15th and 16th innings, helping the Dodgers to victory in the 18th inning. It was after 4pm Saturday afternoon in Japan, which gave die-hard fans a chance to catch their breath, have an early dinner, and settle in to watch game 1 of Japan’s baseball championship series – The Japan Series.

And as the baseball fates would have it, the Hiroshima Carp battled the SoftBank Hawks of Fukuoka into extra innings as well. With a runner on second in the bottom of the 12th, Kosuke Tanaka of the Carp was up with Tomohiro Abe on 2nd with the potential winning run. Alas, Cuban southpaw Livan Moinelo of the Hawks struck out Tanaka, ending the inning…and to the surprise of the casual foreign fan, the game.

Game 1 of the Japan Series ended in a 2-2 tie!

Japan Series Game 1 score

Different from Major League Baseball, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) has a rule that a game cannot continue beyond 12 innings, even if the two teams are tied. This is true during both the regular season and the post season. However, it is possible for the best-of-seven championship Japan series to go more than seven games.

For example, if both the Carp and the Hawks win three games each over the next six games, an eighth game will be scheduled, and the teams would play as long as it takes to determine the winner of the decisive fourth victory.

Of course, if there happens to be two ties, a ninth game could be needed, and so on.

Explanations as to why baseball in Japan has this particular rule are vague, and yet the ones bandied about have a whiff of cultural relevance.

Bob Whiting, long-time writer on Japanese baseball, said that “the explanation usually given is that the trains shut down around 11-12  each night so calling game a tie is so fans can go home. But that doesn’t explain the time limit on afternoon games.”

Another explanation of limiting the length of games is related to energy conservation. It’s possible league officials and owners did not like the optics of keeping the bright lights of the stadium on into the late hours of the evening while the average worker had been asked to make efforts to save energy, particularly during the oil shock years of the 1970s.

These optics were worsened again after the March 2011 triple disaster of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant crisis in northern Japan. As a result, the NPB ruled that games would not be allowed to go into extra innings at all if the game had already passed 3 hours and 30 minutes. Conserving power after the loss of the Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant, and subsequent suspension of almost all nuclear power plants across the country, was the call to action.

There is no energy crunch today in Japan. Most people watch baseball games on TV, not in person. And yet a championship baseball game in Japan can end in a tie.

But as the Hawks manager said after the game, I hope with a straight face, “It was a big tie for us. We’ll be able to take advantage of it.”

2018 Japan Series Game 1

End of the 12th inning and Game 1 of the 2018 Japan Series
Fred Hansen with gold medal
Fred Hansen and his gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

It’s February, 1964 and Fred Hansen is fiddling with his grip.

The then-world record holder for the pole vault, fellow American named John Pennel commonly held the 17-foot pole nearly 15 feet up from where the tip hits the vault box. Hansen’s coach, Augie Erfurth, is trying to coax Hansen to place his grip higher than 14 feet. It’s scientific reasoning. “We’ve got him gripping at 14-2 and 3,” explained Erfurth to a reporter of the Fort Worth Star Telegram. “If the pole reacts, he’ll have more bend.”

Since George Davies won a pole vault competition using a fiberglass poll in May of 1961, it became clear to all that the space age technology of fiberglass was more flexible and stored more kinetic energy in the pole than the more traditional materials of bamboo, steel and aluminum.

If you watch gold medalist, Don Bragg, win gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics, you can see his aluminum pole bend, maybe, 45 degrees at best, as he lept to an Olympic record of 15′ 5″ (4.70 m). Pennel, Hansen and other pole vaulters vying for a spot on the Olympic team to compete at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics were routinely getting over 16 feet, trying to figure out how to get their poles to bend 90 degrees, and maximize the kinetic energy stored in the pole that propels them over the bar as the pole unbends.

The higher the athlete holds the pole, the greater the potential in bend. But as the Rice University graduate, Hansen explained in the article, “vaulting is just like a golf swing. There are so many things to remember.”

You have to be clear in the number of steps you take down the runway, when to hit maximum speed and where to plant your foot when you slip the pole vault into the vault box. You have to be conscious of the position of your arms as you launch to get maximum bend, and of your legs as you approach the bar, efficiently rotating your body vertically so that you are upside down as you climb. Then you have to time your hip extension just as your pole is unbending and releasing its stored energy, sending the athlete to his or her maximum height. Rotating the body horizontally at the right time so that you come down feet first without touching the bar is the final act of the complexity of the pole vault.

In other words, you have to be muscular and flexible in all the right places. Hansen’s training routine was becoming more sophisticated – in addition to isometrics, weightlifting and running, Hansen added a full program of gymnastics, thanks to advice from a fellow American competitor, Brian Sternberg of Seattle, Washington.

“I went to an all-comers meet in California,” Hansen told me. “Brian beat me. He had the most beautiful form I had ever seen – this guy’s got something, I have to find out more.” When Hansen approached the Washington native, Sternberg said he did a lot of gymnastics training, and Hansen thought he should start doing the same to keep up. “I devised a program that was gymnastic oriented. I trained on gymnastics apparatus – the seven phases. I would replicate vault movements on the various apparatus. I don’t know if anybody else was doing that.”

Anybody other than Sternberg, who was a trained gymnast who pole vaulted. Leveraging his gymnastics background and the power of the fiberglass pole, Sternberg twice set a world record in the pole vault in April and June of 1963. The twenty-year-old Sternberg was at the top of his game, very close to being the first person to clear 17 feet, with his coach speculating he could fly over 20 feet one day. Certainly, Sternberg was a shoo-in for the Olympic team headed for Tokyo, destined for golden glory.

Until tragedy struck.

Brian SternbergSternberg did a lot of training on the trampoline, and was training for a competition in the Soviet Union. It was July 2, 1963 and he was doing flips and turns on the trampoline, when he attempted a double-back somersault with a twist. It’s a difficult move, according to this article, that Sternberg had made thousands of times. This time, he landed in the middle of the trampoline, on his neck. The accident turned Sternberg, the best pole vaulter in the world, into a quadraplegic.

“This is a change,” Sternberg said ten months after his accident to AP. “Any change can be a good sign. The pain is mine: I must endure it.” And beyond the expectations of medical science at the time, Sternberg endured it, in pain, for 50 years, passing away on May 23, 2013.

“Brian helped me out with several things I was doing wrong when he was the world’s best,” Hansen said in a Seattle Times article about Hansen’s Olympic triumph in Tokyo. “The only thing that could make me happier at this moment would be if he were here too.”

Hayes Boston Carr Hansen
Tokyo, October, 1964: Four of America’s top hopes for medals in the track and field events pose after arriving in Tokyo for the start of the 1964 Olympic Games. From left to right, they are Bob Hayes, Ralph Boston, Henry Carr and Fred Hansen.

For every Olympics since the re-boot of the Olympic Games at Athens in 1896, Americans had won every single pole vault competition. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Fred Hansen of Cuero, Texas was the world record holder and favorite to be the 15th American Olympic pole vault champion in a row.

But that streak was at risk late into the evening of October 17, 1964.

Wolfgang Reinhardt of Germany made it over 16′ 6¾” (5.05 meters), one of two final competitors, out of the 32 who started. His compatriots, Klaus Lehnertz and Manfred Preussger failed on their three attempts, ending their competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Then Hansen made a gutsy decision. He decided to pass at 16′ 6¾”, and go for 16′ 8¾” (5.1 meters). If Reinhardt makes it at that height and Hansen doesn’t, the tall Texan would not only lose the gold medal, he would be the first American ever to not win gold in the pole vault. Even worse, having passed on two prior heights Lehnertz and Preussger had already made, Hansen’s gamble put him at risk of falling to fourth!

To Hansen, all he was doing was saving his energy for the biggest vault of his life.

At the time, pole vaulting competitions would commonly last three to four hours. But the finals of this Olympic competition was a marathon, starting at 1pm, and continuing late into the cool Autumn night.

“The only thing the Japanese did wrong throughout the Olympics,” Fred explained to the Dallas Morning News, “was let the pole vault finals run too long. The competition lasted nine hours.”

Hansen told me the Olympic officials raised the bar at smaller increments than normal, he suspects, to enable as many vaulters to advance as possible. Through the preliminary round on October 15, and the beginning of the finals, the bar was raised 4 inches at a time (10 cm), but in the last seven rounds of the finals, the bar was raised only 2 inches at a time (5 cm).

At the time of the Olympics, Hansen was the reigning world record holder at 17′ 1¾” (5.23 meters). It was becoming apparent that the long competition was not going to yield a new world record, but he knew his advantage was the need for fewer vaults. In fact, over the two-day competition, Hansen made a total of only 8 attempts out of a possible 31. Contrast that with the Germans Reinhardt, Lehnertz and Preussger who made a total of 15, 16, and 12 respectively.

Conversely, Hansen had to wait, and wait, and wait for his competitors to go through a cycle of three attempts at each height, as the day turned to night and the air turned chilly. But he was ready for the long slog, as he explained in a Dallas Morning News article:

The pressure never really got to me in Tokyo, however. I knew there were certain things I had to do and if I did them right, I could win. The psychological side of vaulting is just as important as the physical side. I managed to keep calm, and that was worth a lot.

So the bar was at 16′ 8¾” (5.1 meters). In the past 7 hours, Hansen had vaulted only 4 times. He had to stay loose, stay warm, and wait for his chance. Finally, in front of only a fraction of the spectators who filled the stadium at the start of the competition, under the very bright lights, Hansen finally stepped up to the runway.

Fred Hansen_bi to chikara_1
Hansen’s approach on his gold-medal winning leap, from the book “Bi to Chikara”.

To the cheers of the remaining Americans in the stands, Hansen runs, sticks his pole in the box, and elevates to the bar, but his chest just brushes against the bar enough on the way up to send it crashing to the ground.

It’s Reinhardt’s turn. In a thin mist, the German runs and seemingly leaps high enough, but he taps the bar on the way down, sending the bar off the uprights.

On their second attempts, Hansen hits the bar again on the way up, while Reinhardt again knocks the bar down on his downflight. Reinhardt is exhausted as he tries to extract himself from the plastic and foam rubber that fills the landing area. As he tumbles off, he sits on the ground for a moment, legs splayed, depleted.

So it comes down to the third and final attempt for Hansen. It’s 10 pm, the temperature has dropped to 19°C. Due to Hansen’s gamble to skip the previous height, if he misses, gold goes to Reinhardt right then and there

Fred Hansen_bi to chikara_2
Hansen clearing the bar_Bi to Chikara

Hansen hit the bar on the way up his first two attempts as he thought he wasn’t getting his feet back enough on the launch. So on the third attempt, fully aware of the need to keep his feet back to create a tiny bit of separation between his body and the bar on the way up, he launches himself into the air, and cleanly over the bar.

Reinhardt has one more chance. But it is not to be, as his feet hit the bar on the way up, ending the long day’s journey into night. Hansen wins gold, setting an Olympic record, and ensuring America’s continued Olympic dominance in the pole vault.

“I didn’t consider it a gamble – I knew I could make it,” said Hansen to reporters after the competition had ended. “I felt like I had to come through for my country.”

Fred Hansen on the medal podium
Fred Hansen on the medal podium.