Munich Olympics, 1972: The ‘Other’ Controversy You May Have Forgotten

Despite its apolitical ideals, the Olympic Games have historically drawn many a political cause to its global stage.

The 1972 Munich Summer Olympics will be most remembered not for its athletic exploits, but for the politically motivated massacre of 11 Israeli team members by the Palestinian terrorist faction known as Black September.

This, the most memorable of political violations, overshadowed everything at the ’72 games. Shocked by the horrific events which unfolded on live TV and in vivid color, many of those alive at the time involuntarily “un-remembered” other notable performances on the field of play, including a particular violation of Chapter 5 of the Olympic charter.

Three days before the atrocity now known as the Munich Massacre, the pole vault competition began and ended on a controversial note, breaking an American string of Olympic gold medals stretching from 1908. It would be another 28 years (2000) until an American would kiss gold again in the event.

Here is that story:

In the early 1970s, pole vaulting was still feeling the aftershocks of the revolutionary introduction of the flexible fiberglass pole a decade earlier. Technique and technology were still evolving and had not yet settled into a norm.

As athletes began to understand the subtle characteristics of a flexible pole, the world record had exploded nearly two-and-a-half feet in the fiberglass era since 1960—with no sign of slowing down.


The Road to Munich

In early July of 1972, American vaulter and defending Olympic champion Bob Seagren had set a new world record of 18 feet, 5.75 inches (5.63 meters) at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon. Steve Smith and Jan Johnson rounded out the qualifying for Team USA, both clearing 18′-0.5″ (5.50).

Testifying to the strength and depth of the American vaulting program, it was the first time the top three finishers had all cleared 18 feet in competition. But the Europeans were catching up. Sweden’s Kjell Isaksson and 1968 Olympic bronze medalist Wolfgang Nordwig, from East Germany, were literally on the ascent.

The Berlin Wall (and the so-called Cold War) was still intact, and a very real rivalry existed at that time between the West and the nations of eastern Europe—particularly between the United States and the Soviet Union/East Germany. And especially in the pole vault, an event that was capturing the attention of a worldwide audience.

The simultaneous advent of the fiberglass pole along with the burgeoning television coverage of international sports put the pole vault directly in the spotlight. And the Europeans were eager to showcase their rising talent. Indeed, at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, West Germany’s Claus Schiprowski and Nordwig, had shared the podium with Seagren.


An Ominous Sign

An Olympic battle for supremacy in the pole vault between the free-wheeling style of the Americans and the machine-like technical style of the Europeans seemed imminent.

An act of political gamesmanship was suspected then, when the Stockholm-based world governing body of track and field, the IAAF, threw a wrench into the gears of the U.S. vaulting team on July 25, a month before the Munich Games were to begin.

Acting on a protest by the East Germans, the IAAF banned from international competition a particular brand of pole the Americans (and others) had been training with, a slightly lighter and thinner implement, the Catapole 550+. It was claimed the pole contained carbon fibers even though there was no such prohibition in IAAF rules.

When this detail, and the fact that the pole did not contain carbon fibers was pointed out, the IAAF retreated from its weak argument and changed tactics. It maintained the ban, citing a vague rule implying the relatively new pole had not been available to all competitors for at least 12 months.

This misconception was also disproved, according to David Clay Large, writing in his book Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror and Triumph at the Olympic Games.

Apparently coming to its senses, the governing body suddenly reversed itself on July 27, lifting the ban mere days before the pole vault competition.

It should be noted here that any serious pole vaulter will profess that a particular pole is a finely tuned implement and, depending on the conditions, is like an extension of his body. To be forced to use an unfamiliar pole on short notice is a definite handicap to performance. Which makes the IAAF’s next move even more profound.

On August 30, hours before the competition, the pole ban was reinstated, without any apparent legal standing. Olympic officials went room to room, confiscating the Catapole 550s from the Athlete’s Village. In an attempt to remove any perceived advantage the pole might have provided, the IAAF, in effect, gave the advantage to the East Germans and any other vaulters who had not been using the new pole.

Although replacement poles were provided, many vaulters had to scramble to borrow or buy “legal” poles that would hopefully give them the nuanced response most similar to their Catapole 550s.

At some point, the Dutch president of the European Athletic Association (and future president of the IAAF), Adriaan Paulen, became the face of all that was politically incorrect to the Americans. Strangely, he was not known to be aligned against the West. He was, in fact, an Allied World War II hero with an honorary officer’s ranking in the U.S. Army.

It is not known how—or if—Paulen was involved in the ban, as he had not yet ascended to the presidency of the IAAF. Nevertheless, his was the face forever etched in the minds of the Americans—and in the video record as well. Interestingly, in an unconventional manner, Paulen stationed himself not in the dignitary’s box above the fray, but down on the field, amid the pole vaulting area throughout the competition.


The Competition

It was cool and breezy on the day of the finals—not ideal conditions for the pole vault. Earlier, Isaksson and American Steve Smith, both struggling with injuries, failed to qualify. Smith topped out at 15′-9″ (4.80) and in frustration at failing to clear 16′-5″ (5.0), he hurled the crossbar, and then his replacement pole, as if they were javelins. Videotape of the incident shows Paulen looking on in disgust.

Considering the weather and the pole ban, the finals competition was not pretty. Overall, there were 59 misses and 29 clearances. When vaulters missed, they missed badly, often misjudging the depth of the crossbar and landing awkwardly.

At 17′-4″ (5.30), only four vaulters remained: Reinhard Kuretzky of West Germany; the Americans, Jan Johnson and Seagren, and Nordwig of East Germany.

Seagren and Nordwig cleared 17′-6.5″ (5.35) on their first attempts. Kuretzky missed on all his attempts and dropped from the competition. Johnson stayed alive, sailing over on his third attempt.

When the bar went to 17′-8.5″ (5.40), Seagren had his first miss, but Johnson and Nordwig had first-attempt misses as well. The East German nailed his second attempt. Johnson and Seagren again missed. Under the pressure of a final attempt, Johnson’s vault wasn’t close. He dropped out but salvaged a bronze medal.

Seagren valiantly put it all together on his third attempt, advancing to the next height with a clean, crisp vault.

Looking confident and comfortable with his old familiar pole, Nordwig easily cleared 17′-10.5″ (5.45) with precision form on his first attempt. Seagren used up all three tries, finally brushing the bar off with his chest as he attempted to curl over.

Nordwig, already snugly zipped in his warm-up gear, immediately raised his hands in victory and walked toward the emotionally drained Seagren. The American grabbed his pole and walked right past Nordwig, seemingly absorbed in the politics of the moment.

It was Paulen, the face of all that was wrong with this competition, who was the object of Seagren’s focus. With one hand, he gave his default pole to Paulen in a symbolic gesture of ownership. Then, as if to soften the tension, with his other he offered a handshake and walked off the field.

The snubbed Nordwig, vaulting alone in what was, in effect, an exhibition, used his three free vaults to clear an Olympic-record 18′-0.5″ (5.50), making the case that it was probably just his day anyway.

What seemed like a legitimate grievance against the IAAF at the time became somewhat less significant in light of the madness to follow three days later. However, the lesson of vigilance regarding those in positions of power always remains relevant and a reminder that in sport, no one should be above the rules.



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