Up until 1964, Fred Hansen had made a slow but gradual improvement as a pole vaulter, reaching a personal best of 4.90m in 1963. But in the early months of the 1964 season, Hansen rapidly exploded to become the world’s premier vaulter.
On 5 June, at Houston, Hansen cleared 5.20m, which equalled the world record. Unfortunately, this jump was not ratified as a world record, although it was accepted as a USA national record. Any possible controversy over this mark became irrelevant eight days later, when Fred set a new world record of 5.23m at San Diego.
The following month, in a USA v Soviet Union international match at Los Angeles, Fred improved the record even further, when he cleared 5.28m on his first attempt. Having qualified for the Olympic team to Tokyo after winning at the USA Olympic Trials on 12 September, Hansen was under even more pressure than his fellow competitors, as he carried the added responsibility of ensuring the maintenance of the USA’s unbroken string of pole vault victories since 1896.
The final at Tokyo, held on 17 October, was a long, drawn out affair, lasting over nine hours. Hansen had no problem with the early heights during the afternoon, but the real competition started to unfold later in the evening when four vaulters all cleared 5.00m at their first attempt. Hansen then decided to pass at the next height of 5.05m, which only Wolfgang Reinhardt (West Germany) was able to clear.
Re-entering the competition at 5.10m, Hansen sensationally failed his first two attempts. With the possibility of the USA’s winning streak coming to an end, Hansen easily cleared on his last attempt, and when Reinhardt failed, Fred had safely secured the gold medal. Hansen subsequently retired soon after his Olympic victory.
by: Ron Casey