by Steve Breazeale
When San Clemente resident Steve Smith sits down to tell someone of his Olympic past, he starts it with a preface.
“I’m not a warm and fuzzy Olympic story,” said Smith, a longtime San Clemente real estate agent.
In his athletic career, Smith set state records in the pole vault in high school at South Torrance, tore through the collegiate competition while at Long Beach State, earned a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 21, cleared for the first time the then-fabled 18-foot mark indoors and represented the USA in the 1972 Olympics. He was a professional track and field star and is remembered by his outspoken style and massive jumps on big stages.
The ’72 Munich games may be best known by the tragic murder of Israeli team members by terrorists known as Black September. But for Smith, the games were the place where his Olympic dreams started, and ended, in controversy.
Due to a last-minute ban on the poles the Americans and vaulters from several other countries were using, Smith was forced to compete on older, heavier poles he was not accustomed to and finished in 18th place.
The process in which the International Association of Athletics Federations, the track and field governing body, laid down the ban is as twisted and convoluted as can be.
Smith and his fellow pole-vaulting teammates, which included 1968 gold medalist Bob Seagren, had already qualified for the event by way of the Olympic Trials on poles that were slightly lighter than their traditional counterparts. The game was changing, and Smith and vaulters around the world were looking for lighter poles that could still hold their weight.
“It’s like the difference in fishing poles. If you’re going to catch a marlin, you’re going to bring a heavy rod…If you’re going to catch a trout, you’re bringing a little, flexible rod,” Smith said. “(What these poles did) was make it like a trout rod and give it the flex and response of a marlin rod.”
When the issue was brought to the IAAF’s attention just weeks before the games, the group immediately banned the poles. An appeal was eventually made, claiming that the poles were not carbon fiber and the governing body granted the appeal, reversing its decision. When the Americans showed up for the games there was grumbling out of the East German contingent that the poles used by Smith and Seagren were illegal and made out of carbon fibers.
After they had won their appeal, Smith and his teammates thought they were good to go, until another sucker punch arrived the night before Olympic competition. The IAAF had once again reversed its decision, this time claiming that no new equipment could be used that wasn’t available to the general public six months prior to the start of the Olympics. The federations deemed the Americans poles as new equipment.
“They just took the poles at the games for no reason and said, ‘That’s a newer design’… They just took these poles away arbitrarily,” Smith said.
The next day, the pole vault competition got underway.
“We had no backup poles…I had a short-run pole that you use to run half the length of the runway…It’s much, much weaker. So that’s what I ended up having to jump on,” Smith said. “I ran from a 50-foot run-up instead of 130 feet and jumped 15 feet 9 inches…It was a disaster.”
Afterward, Smith said he threw his pole in disgust, almost hitting a bystander. Security then pressed him to exit the stadium but he resisted by grabbing a pole, holding it like a sword.
Seagren actually found a replacement pole that was good enough to vault him to a silver medal. After his final jump, Seagren searched out then IAAF President Adrian Paulen, walked up to him, handed him his pole and walked away.
“You work your a– off since you were a little tiny kid…And here’s your dream, like a big golden door going to heaven or something and you open the door and go down a hallway,” Smith said. “But every time you open a door, there was a big, nightmarish monster leaping out the door…then you open another and ‘Here comes another one’…and you’re thinking to yourself, this is impossible, this can’t be happening.”
Smith may not have enjoyed the Olympics, for obvious reasons, but he recalled bright spots, like when he would sneak in the back door of an Olympic Village convenience store after hours to grab soda and candy bars for the shot put team. The combination of caffeine, carbonation and sugar was apparently a secret weapon employed by the American throwers.
Aside from his own predicament in ‘72, there was also the terrorist attack.
“We were all rattled to death. (Our situation) was a miniscule thing compared to the Israelis and the terrorists,” Smith said.
Smith would qualify for another Olympiad in 1980, this time as an alternate. But politics got in the way, and the U.S. team boycotted the entire competition in Moscow.
The let down at the ’72 games acted as a springboard for Smith’s career. He rededicated himself to his sport and put together the best stretch of his career. He was the first man ever to clear the 18-foot indoor mark achieved at Madison Square Garden in 1973, was ranked No. 1 in the world in the pole vault, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, set several world records and won a cross country national championship with Cal State Long Beach.
“The biggest (motivation) was going out and making amends for having the rug yanked out from under me at the Olympics,” Smith said.
It might not be a “warm and fuzzy” Olympic story, but its Steve Smith’s story to tell.