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.”

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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.
Neymar nails the final penalty kick to win gold
Brazil captain Neymar broke down in tears after scoring the penalty that earned his country’s first ever football gold medal (Photo: Getty Images)

Brazil had so much to be proud of at the 2016 Rio Olympics:

olympic-torch_usatsi_9424428

Thiago Braz da Silva and his winning vault
Thiago Braz da Silva and his winning pole vault

Renaud Lavillenie was above them all, figuratively and literally. The man from Barbezieux-Saint-Hilaire, reigning Olympic champion, didn’t deign to pole vault the first two heights of 5.50 and 5.65 meters. He was after all the world record holder at 6.16 meters. The men’s 800-meter finals were on, and he wasn’t doing anything anyway…so he watched David Rudisha win gold while he waited on his competition to get through their pedestrian heights.

When his rivals reached 5.75 meters, Lavillenie decided to join the competition. With the crowd clapping and cheering, the Frenchman rose above the bar with ease. As he did at 5.85.

The bar was raised to 5.93, which the announcer said was about the same as “vaulting over the average house”. In other words, the bar was getting pretty high.

Renaud Lavillenie making a vault
Renaud Lavillenie making a vault

Lavillenie is up first and he makes it with a roar. The Frenchman is yet to miss. But 5.93 proves to be a few centimeters too high for Jan Kudlička of the Czech Republic, Piotr Lisek of Poland and Sam Kendricks of the US, the eventual bronze medalist. Hometown favorite, but relatively unknown Thiago Braz da Silva of Brazil, also misses his first attempt at 5.93. But the 22-year old from the town of Marília, Brazil, running to the cheers of the crowd, makes it over the bar.

And now there are two. The Champion versus the Kid.

Lavillenie readies himself to win his second consecutive Olympic championship in the pole vault. He is up first, waits for the bar to be raised to 5.98, and clears it easily. By making 5.98 meters, Lavillenie has set a new Olympic record.

The young Brazilian, on the other hand, has never won a medal at an international event of any significance. He’s young, is improving very quickly, and clearly ballsy. Instead of trying to match Lavillenie at 5.98, da Silva says he wants the bar raised to 6.03. da Silva’s never cleared 6 meters, and yet he’s going for it.

Lavillenie calmly sips from a water bottle, sharing laughs with others. Da Silva fidgets with his poles, deciding which one he should use to propel him to new heights. With the new height, it’s back up to Lavillenie. He makes it over on his first attempt, but grazes the bar with his right hip on the way down – it’s the Frenchman’s first miss.

The pressure is intense. da Silva runs to the pit, extends the pole, but just as he raises off the ground, he gives up and falls harmlessly to the ground. It’s back to Lavillenie, a man who’s cleared this height many times in his career, encouraging the crowd to clap. And again, Lavillenie clears the bar only to knock it off as his stomach hits the bar. That’s two misses.

da Silva settles into the runway, victory potentially within his grasp with a miracle leap. He runs, he stabs, and he climbs into the air. He makes it! “What a jump,” shouts the announcer. “What a leap into the record books. What an all mighty chance he has now of taking the gold. Six oh three. The 20th man to go over 6 meters!”

Thiago Braz da Silva new Olympic record

Lavillenie sits in preparation, his face clearly showing concern. He’s likely thinking, “Where did this guy come from?” Looking for answers in the ground. he walks around to screw up his concentration for one final, enormous leap. Lavillenie decides to raise the bar, setting it at 6 meters 8 centimeters. If he makes it, da Silva has to make a very high leap. But the stakes are high for Lavillenie – miss it and the gold falls from his grasp.

The champion zips up his suit as he readies his pole for flight. He runs, he plants his pole, and he launches into the air. But this time, on the rise, Lavillenie’s feet hit the bar, which falls to earth. A new champion has been crowned – Thiago Braz da Silva is an Olympic champion, and Brazil’s newest hero.

No Brazilian has ever qualified in the Olympic pole vault. But in these Rio Olympics, da Silva not only competed, he set the Olympic record and ripped gold from the champion’s hands, vaulting into the hearts of Brazilians all.

Lavillenie loses