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Americans Pole-Axed: Olympic Pole Vault Controversy

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Americans won the pole vault gold medal in every official Olympic Games from 1896 through 1968 (not including the semi-official 1906 event). Bob Seagren, the 1968 gold medalist, might’ve continued that run for one more Olympics but for a dispute that played out during the summer preceding the 1972 Games.

In July, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) banned the new Cata-Pole used by Seagren, fellow American Steve Smith and others, following a protest from East Germany. That country’s top competitor, Wolfgang Nordwig, didn’t use the pole. The IAAF first stated that the new poles contained carbon fiber, then insisted that they hadn’t been available through “normal supply channels” for a long enough period of time. Others noted that the poles did not contain carbon fiber and, even if they had, IAAF rules did not ban carbon fiber poles, nor did the rules say anything regarding availability of poles through normal supply channels.

The IAAF reversed its decision on Aug. 27, then re-reversed itself on Aug. 30, one day prior to the pole vault event. IAAF officials confiscated the competitors’ Cata-Poles and gave them new versions of the old pole.

Nordwig went on to win the event with a best jump of 18 feet, ½-inch (5.5 meters). Seagren, who held the world record at 18-5¾, took the silver at 17-8½. 

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