Ralph Boston_Mexico 1968_from his collection
Ralph Boston jumping at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, from his collection.

Ralph Boston of Laurel, Mississippi came to Queens, New York to visit Jamaica High School in 1964. The gold and silver medalist of the Rome and Tokyo Olympics stood before the teenagers in the school gymnasium in his red-white-and-blue warm-up gear and talked about dreams, commitment and hard work. An 18-year-old high school senior and budding long jumper named Bob Beamon stared starry-eyed at Boston and wondered, having no idea that this great Olympian would be providing him life-changing advice four years later.

At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Boston was the World and Olympic record holder in the long jump, but the three-time Olympian knew he was approaching the end of his career, and knew that Beamon had a better chance than he did to re-take the long jump Olympic championship back from the Brits and 1964 gold medalist Lynn Davies.

Amateur photographer, Tony Duffy from London learned about Beamon from Boston himself. Duffy was on vacation in Mexico City, sitting poolside with England’s long jumper and ’64 gold medalist, Mary Rand, in the Olympic Village. According to Deadspin, 1964 long jump gold and silver medalists Lynn Davies and Boston walked by and sat down at the same table, and began talking about Beamon.

Ralph Boston and Bob Beamon_Mexico City
ack & Field: 1968 Summer Olympics: (L-R) USA Ralph Boston (256) and Bob Beamon (254) during Men’s Long Jump competition at Estadio Olimpico. Mexico City, Mexico 10/17/1968–10/18/1968 CREDIT: Walter Iooss Jr. (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

The subject came around to Bob Beamon, Boston’s precocious American teammate, “a slash of a man, 6’3”, 160 pounds,” according to Sports Illustrated. Boston knew that Davies liked to play psychological games with his opponents, and he had some advice for Davies about the long-limbed, long-necked 22-year-old Beamon: “Don’t get him riled up because he’s liable to jump out of the f—ing pit.”

It’s possible that Boston was also messing with his rival’s head, but Boston knew what Beamon was capable of. And in fact, it was Boston who, on October 17, 1968, provided critical advice to Beamon. According to this great account in LetsRun of that day, Beamon had worked the previous day with sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos to work on his own sprinting speed. Beamon could run the 100 yards in 9.5 seconds, a world class sprinting time. But in the qualifying round, Beamon was simply too fast in his first two attempts, overshooting the board and fouling on both attempts. One more miss and Beamon’s great season up to that point, and his amazing potential for Olympic glory would evaporate, leaving the kid from Queens a footnote in the annals of the Mexico City Games, as Boston explained to me:

I said to Bob, “You can’t win gold today.” This is the qualifying round. It just moves you on until tomorrow. He was zipping down that runway. He hit his jump. It was probably as good as when he won on the second day, but he fouled it. “C’mon man,” I said. “All you got to do is jump 7.8 to qualify.” I took my jump and I qualified easily. I took off my spikes. Bob does it again and fouls by over a foot. I said, “Damn it, Bob. Just qualify!”

According to LetsRun, Beamon was extra careful in his final qualifying leap.

He lengthened his run-up, half-jogged down the runway, and did not come close to touching the board; Boston estimated he was 18 inches behind it when he took off, while Beamon thought it was closer to two feet. Still Beamon leaped 8.19 meters (26-10 ½), second only to Boston’s 8.27 (27-1 ¾). He was in the final.

The rest, as they say, is history. On October 18, 1968, Beamon watched three others foul before he started his sprint on his first attempt in the men’s long jump finals. Duffy, the amateur photographer without credentials took advantage of the lax security in the Estadio Olympico Universitario, and parked himself about 50 feet from the long jump pit.

And with his Nikkormat manual drive camera and 300mm lens, he knew to get ready for Beamon, just in case. Covering 130 feet in 19 strides, Beamon launched himself into the air. Sprinter Carlos thought that “he just kept climbing.” And as Beamon finally began his descent, his arms outstretched forward, his mouth and eyes wide open, a blend of possibility and joy etched on his visage, Duffy snapped away on his camera.

Bob Beamon_Tony Duffy
Tony Duffy’s photo of Bob Beamon

Beamon had leapt 8.90 meters. The distance was beyond what the optical sensors in place could pick up so it took some 20 minutes before they could determine the distance by tape measure. And when the board flashed 8.90 meters, Beamon did not know what that meant in feet, but when he learned that he hit 29 ft. 2½ inches, an astounding improvement on the world record of nearly two feet, he fell to his knees in emotional shock.

Everyone knew that after Beamon’s first jump the competition was over. Davies was famously quoted as telling Beamon, “you have destroyed this event.” Beamon made one more attempt, a relatively pedestrian 8.04 meters, and then stopped. He had the world record, one that no one would touch for another 23 years until Mike Powell raised the current world record to 8.95 in 1991.

An East German named Klaus Beer took the silver medal. And with a jump of 8.16 meters, Boston won the bronze medal, completing the gold-silver-bronze set he accumulated over three Olympiads. He also had the heartfelt admiration and gratitude of Beamon, the biggest story of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, as he explained to a reporter in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on October 19, 1968.

Whatever Beamon has achieved as a long jumper he said he has to credit Boston. “Ralph has helped me since I started jumping as a 12-year old,” Beamon recalled. “He has given me bits of information to help and he still does.”

Ralph Boston_Tokyo 1964_from his collection
Ralph Boston and his winning leap at the 1964 Tokyo 1964 Olympics, from his collection

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were held in October to avoid the heat and the typhoons of summer. Unfortunately, except for the beautiful Autumn weather of Opening Day, most of the two weeks of the Olympiad were wet and chilly.

On October 18, the day of the men’s long jump finals, it was 13.5 °C (56.3 °F) and it rained hard all day. According to reigning Olympic champion, Ralph Boston, “It was really coming down. The weather was raw. The air was heavy with moisture and it was just tough.”

And then, there was the wind. The way the long jump was set up for the finals, the wind blew directly into the faces of the athletes as they ran down the runway towards the sand pit. Boston observed that the long jump area was designed to go in either direction, with sand pits at both ends of the runway. In the morning during the qualifier, they ran in one direction, but in the afternoon for the finals, the officials flipped the direction. “I remember asking the official from Netherlands in charge, whether we could turn this around and run the other way, but he said we couldn’t do that,” Boston told me.

Of the 32 competitors who started that day, only 12 qualified for the finals. In those first three jumps, the Soviet favorite, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan had the longest leap at 7.78 meters. The group narrowed to six competitors, and as the day got longer, Boston recognized the day as a war of attrition – no one was going to hit anything close to world record levels. “I don’t think anyone will jump eight meters today,” said Boston to one of his teammates.

Lynn Davies and Ralph Boston
Lynn Davies and Ralph Boston in 1964

Lynn Davies, the 22-year-old Welshman representing Great Britain, overheard Boston’s remark, and found himself re-energized.

Davies told the BBC that up to that moment he had looked up to Boston and Ter-Ovanesyan as unbeatable competitors. “They were my heroes. But when I heard Ralph say that I realized the conditions were tough for them too and I thought I had a chance because I’d jumped eight meters back home in Wales in similar conditions.”

At the end of four rounds, Boston was in the lead with a jump of 7.88 meters. As Davies gathered himself for his fifth attempt, he took three deep breaths, his face set in a scowl of concentration. Lynn launched himself down the runway, flew through the air, and hit the sand just right so that he was able to pop right up. Lynn was impassive as he walked out of the pit, but when the scoreboard flashed 8.07 meters, he brought his hands to his head in a mixture of joy and disbelief.

Boston had fouled his fifth attempt, but he had one more chance. He had fallen behind, not just Davies but also Ter-Ovanesyan, whose leap of 7.99 put him in second place. Perhaps because Davies had shown that 8 meters was not insurmountable that day, Boston charged down the runway with his best leap of the finals – 8.03 meters. The American overtook the Soviet, but could not overtake the new Olympic champion, dubbed in the British press as Lynn The Leap.

Ralph_Boston,_Lynn_Davies,_Igor_Ter-Ovanesyan_1964 (1)
Ralph Boston, Lynn Davies, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan, 1964 Olympics (Asahi Shinbun) public domain

Boston won the silver medal, and told the BBC that Davies deserved the gold.

It was rainy, rainy, rainy. When it rained in America I tried not to go out in it so I wasn’t prepared for it. It was one of the most horrendous days I’ve ever competed in. But I always said it behooved a champion to take advantage of whatever’s there and that’s what you [Davies] did and all the best to you for doing it.

Ralph Boston Performing Record Breaking Jump at Olympics
Ralph Boston

It was the evening of August 11, 1960. Ralph Boston had one of the best prime ribs he had ever had at steakhouse, Red Tracton’s, and was settling into a good night’s sleep before the United States track and field meet at Mt San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) in Los Angeles. This was the last tune up for American track and field athletes before the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Rooming with three-time Olympic triple jumper, Bill Sharpe, Boston engaged Sharpe in some pre-sleep braggadocio.

“At 10:30 I’m settling into bed and Phil is doing some exercises,” Boston told me. “I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘I’m preparing to break the record in the triple jump.’ I said, ‘OK. I tell you what. If you break the record, I’ll break the American record in the broad jump.’ He stared at me and said the American record is also the world record. I had no idea. I didn’t care. I went to sleep.”

August 12, 1960 went on to become a historic day in American track history as over 8,600 spectators at Mt SAC saw Americans break four world records – including John Thomas’ high jump of 2.18 meters (7’ 2”, Bill Nieder’s shot put throw of 20.06 meters (65’ 10”), and Hal Connolly’s hammer throw of 70.33 meters (230’ 9”).

The biggest world record to fall that day was one that had stood for over 25 years – Jesse Owen‘s long jump of 8.13 meters (26” 8 ¼”). And the record breaker was Ralph Boston, with a leap of 8.21 meters (26” 11 ¼”) that bettered his personal best by half a foot, and Owens’ record by three inches.

Boston had just turned 21 and he had outleapt a legend. The legend was humble. “I’m happy to see the record broken, and I’m just thankful that it stood up this long,” said triple gold medalist Owens to an AP reporter. “This shows that progress is being made in track and field. It also shows that youngsters have come along today much better than they did 25 years ago.”

Ralph Boston and Jesse Owens
Jesse Owens and Ralph Boston in Rome.

The youngster was not as prepared to face the press as the legend. “Jesse said it was all right to break it,” he told reporters that day. “He’s tired of it.”

The fact of the matter is, Boston didn’t know Owens and had never talked to him. As he admitted, he had just turned 21 that August. “I’m a neophyte. I don’t know what the heck is going on. And I’m trying to be what we call in the hood, ‘cool,'” but instead ended up sounding like a disrespectful kid.

When Boston arrived in Rome for the 1960 Olympics, and finally came face to face with America’s hero of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he was ashamed of his post-meet comments at Mt SAC. “I got on my knees, and said ‘I’m sorry.'”

But there was no denying it. Ralph Boston was now the favorite for gold in Rome, and was famous. Reporters asked him for interviews and passersby asked him for photos, including a GOAT to be.

On our way to Rome, after I broke Jesse’s record, we hung around LA, and we flew to NY to get processed and head to Rome. We pulled in front of the hotel, people were exiting, and this young man came up to me and said, “Ralph Boston. I want to shake your hand. I want to take your picture.” I asked him who he was, and he said, “You don’t know me. But you will. My name is Cassius Marcellus Clay.’ 

Ralph Boston Muhammad Ali Wilma Rudolph_TSU
TSU Olympic legends Ralph Boston and Wilma Rudolph hang out with Muhammad Ali during one of his visits to Tennessee State University. (TSU archives)
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)


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.”

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.”