CLEVELAND, Ohio — Don Bragg, at 77, is track and field’s lion in winter. An outlandish man, even by the standards of his extreme event, pole vaulting, Bragg never realized his post-Olympic dream of playing Tarzan in the movies. But he can still raise a ruckus.
In a recent telephone interview, Bragg said disgraced, drug-abusing cyclist Lance Armstrong, who dominated his sport with seven straight Tour de France victories, should be able to compete again. “I like him now more than I did before,” said the outspoken Bragg, the 1960 Olympic pole vault gold medalist, who was famous in an era of enforced amateurism for his feuds with the sport’s bureaucrats.
“At least he finally said, ‘OK, I took it (performance-enhancing drugs). I’m clean. I want to compete again.’ But they say no,” said Bragg.
The eight-year ban on Armstrong in cycling, triathlons and any other Olympic sport with a national federation is draconian compared to the six-month bans others received. That is due to Armstrong’s years of lying about using PEDs and the vile way he used lawsuits to bully, harass and sometimes ruin accusers.
Bragg believes drug-testing techniques at the time were simply behind those of drug users at the top level of cycling. “They say Armstrong was taking drugs, but so were another two or three dozen guys in his races,” said Bragg. “They were all on stuff. It was just who could hide it the best, whose doctor or research scientist had discovered the best way to hide what they were taking.”
Bragg, the last Olympic gold medalist to use a metal pole, knows about the uneven playing field. The sudden shift in competitive values in pole vaulting in the 1960s occurred because, under the rules, poles can be made out of anything. The fiberglass pole was a legal performance-enhancer.
The change to a new, gymnastics-based style on a much more flexible pole embittered Bragg and made his world record obsolete overnight. Bragg once showed up, uninvited, at the birthday party of 1972 Olympic bronze medalist Jan Johnson. “Steve Smith was supposed to meet me there, but he was about two hours late,” said Bragg. Smith, a 1972 Olympian, was a long-haired, flamboyant character who routinely took his practice jumps in baggy red ski pants and suspenders.
“When Smith showed up, I chased him around a while, and we jumped over the bonfire,” Bragg said, in a matter-of-fact tone, indicating that hurdling a roaring fire was no big deal.
As he left, Bragg called all the fiberglass pole vaulters at the party a pejorative word that can best be euphemized as “sissies.”
“I had a drop or two of Captain Morgan’s (rum) in me. I had set a world record on an inferior piece of equipment. Remember, my name is Bragg,” he said.
Doping occurred even in Bragg’s day. Danish cyclist Knud Jensen died during competition at the 1960 Olympics. An autopsy revealed traces of amphetamines in his system. “They were doing some (stuff) even then,” said Bragg.
Interviewed for a chapter on the great pole vaulters of the past in “Above and Beyond” — my biography of Tim Mack, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist from Westlake and St. Ignatius — Bragg said of the PED plague in track and field: “I’m a guy who wants to legalize everything. You get tested by doctors, and if you have any liver or kidney problems, you get shut down for a while. At least everybody would be honest then.”
Asked if he still felt that way, Bragg said, “Now why would this (Armstrong’s confession) alter my opinion?”
On the elite level, doctor-supervised use of PEDs would have curtailed some of the advantages Armstrong enjoyed. He had the best doctors, the most money and the least reluctance to try to intimidate or buy off authorities.
Legalizing PEDs is not going to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, Bragg wonders how Armstrong, one of the best endurance athletes ever, would fare if he and everyone else were clean. “Why, hell, man, Armstrong made a confession,” said Bragg. “You can check him anytime you want to. You can wake him up in the middle of the night if you want to do a test, and he says he’ll pass it. So he can’t compete anymore because he once took drugs?”
Bragg doesn’t get it. He knows every lion yearns for the chase.