There’s one person in Clayton who knows what those athletes were going through Aug. 1 in their Olympic finals.In fact, local resident Don Bragg can even top Ipsen and Kohler, as 52 years ago next Friday on Sept 7, 1960, Don Bragg won the Olympic gold medal in the pole vault at the Rome Summer Games while setting an Olympic record to beat fellow American Ron Morris.
Don and Theresa Bragg moved to Clayton in 1996 and live just a block or so from Main Street where the Sept. 15 parade will be held.The Rome Olympics were contested at the height of the Cold War and it was the Soviet Union that dominated the meet, winning 32 more medals than the United States on the athletic battlefield. The Games came just two years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. They were the last Olympics in which apartheid South Africa was allowed to compete and the second of three Olympics where East and West Germany had a combined team.
The contrasts between 1960 and 2012 Games are staggering. Rome was the first Olympics telecast to North America. CBS paid $394,000 for the TV rights (about $3 million in today’s dollars). NBC paid $1.18 billion to telecast from London this year and drew 219.4 million US viewers, which is 40 million more than the population of America in 1960. A total of 83 countries sent 5,338 athletes (only 611 of them women) to Rome to compete in 17 sports and 150 events. By comparison, London had 204 nations with 4,688 women among the 10,500 athletes in 36 sports and 302 events.Such seminal figures as Cassius Clay (now Muhammad Ali), barefoot marathoner Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia and an amateur American basketball Dream Team with Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and Jerry Lucas won gold medals.
Taking a backseat to no one was Bragg, the world record holder who starred in college at Villanova University and then competed for the US Army before the Olympics. With movie star looks and a signature “Tarzan” yell Bragg overcame injuries to win gold in 1960. He was such a star that when Rome celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Games two years ago Bragg was asked to represent the United States.
Among the people he saw there was pole vault bronze medalist Eeles Landström of Finland. This time the rivals compared their list of health ailments rather than their vaulting exploits.Bragg missed the Opening Ceremonies in Rome because his coach wanted him to rest a pulled muscle. “I was there to win not parade,” Bragg says. After missing out on a berth on the 1956 Olympic team due to injury Bragg had extra incentive to perform in Rome.“I was extremely motivated.”It was “hot as hell” on the final night of the pole vault when 13 vaulters competed for the medals. Bragg’s solution was to take a mouthful of water with honey even though he’d been advised: “don’t drink the water” in Rome.
Wind in the Olympic Stadium also screwed up his steps.Bragg was aware that favored American high jumper John Thomas had lost to a pair of Soviet jumpers a few days earlier since the press wouldn’t stop pointing it out. “Little did they know they provided me with more incentive,” Bragg said. He also knows there’s a certain amount of luck involved. A major Soviet competitor was injured just before Bragg was due to jump in the same spot.Ultimately Bragg cleared an Olympic record 15’ 5” for gold.
He is considered the last of the great vaulters using an aluminum pole. He had set the outdoor world record of 15’ 9-1/4” at the Olympic Trials. The year before he broke the world indoor record with a jump of 15’ 9½”.When Bragg traveled to Rome with the American team he went there “to compete against the best in the world” and didn’t want “any distractions,” which meant that he left his sweetheart, Theresa Fiore, home in New Jersey. “We dated for seven years but he always told me he ‘wouldn’t put gold on your finger until they put gold around my neck,’’’ Theresa Bragg laughs today.Days after the pole vault Theresa read a newspaper article which said Don was headed home to marry his sweetheart.
They were married two months after the Rome Olympics. Bragg, who had to maintain a 1200-calorie a day diet so that he didn’t weigh too much for his pole, retired about a year after the Olympics and briefly pursued a movie career to follow his hero Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan on the big screen.Kohler can take heart that her Olympic medal came this year as the United States celebrated the 40th anniversary of Title IX that changed the high school and college sports landscape to insure equity for women. Not coincidentally, 60% of the American medals in London were won by women, including signature team victories in basketball, soccer, water polo, beach volleyball and gymnastics plus swimming and track relays.
Indeed Kohler’s teammates on the women’s eight crew won the ultimate rowing event for the second time in a row. Of all these golds only gymnastics, swimming and track were even offered to women in Rome!Come Rio in four years and perhaps Ipsen and Kohler will be able to get to the top of the Olympic podium like their Clayton neighbor Don Bragg.
by: Jay Bedecarre
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