On September 2, 1972, East Germany’s Wolfgang Nordwig cleared 5.5 meters (18 feet, ½ inches) to become the first ever non-American man to win gold in the pole vault at the Olympics.
Led by Wolfgang Nordwig, East Germany took pole vaulting gold at the 1972 Munich Olympics, beating out the American duo of Bob Seagren (silver) and Jan Johnson (bronze). Nordwig’s triumph ended a streak of 16 gold medals in men’s pole vault by the United States—a record that began at the very first Olympics in 1896. However, the streak did not die without controversy.
A little over a month before the 1972 Games, the International Amateur Athletic Federation announced that a new model of Cata-Poles would be banned for the Olympics. These poles, which defending Olympic gold medalist Seagren and several other top vaulters used, were outlawed due to the fact that they “had not been available through normal supply channels.” It is notable that Nordwig did not use the new poles; instead, he used an older, more flexible version.
Then, just four days before competition began, the IAAF reversed their decision and lifted the ban. However, three days after that, the decision was flipped once more and the IAAF went to athlete’s rooms confiscating the now-illegal Cata-Poles.
Nordwig, who was using his preferred pole, had little trouble with his jumps during the two-day competition. Seagren, on the other hand, did have issues with his substitute pole as his best effort in Munich (5.4 meters; 17 feet, 8½ inches) failed to even come close to his personal best of 5.63 meters (18 feet, 5¾ inches). After his final jump, and angry with how IAAF handled the fiasco, Seagren thrust his pole into the arms of Adriaan Paulen, the IAAF president at the time.
Bob Seagren would have had ample opportunity to practice with the old [poles]. He’s been in Europe several weeks.
East German pole vaulter and 1972 Olympic champion
Nordwig retired later in 1972 and was named as the East German Sportsman of the Year by readers of the Berlin newspaper Junge Welt. His Olympic record of 5.50 meters stood until the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, when five vaulters bettered his mark.
Seagren later turned professional and competed on the International Track Association circuit from 1973 to 1976. His other ventures have included winning the inaugural The Superstars TV show in 1973 and a stint in acting, appearing on shows such as Soap, Fantasy Island, Love Boat, and Wonder Woman.
Since the 1972 Games, the United States has won the men’s pole vault twice (Nick Hysong in 2000 and Tim Mack in 2004). Germany (East, West, or unified), meanwhile, has not sat atop the podium since.
Nordwig’s jump was very qualified and probably would win a gold medal on almost any normal day. But I’m bitter—maybe partly because of the handicap, and partly because of my own stupidity.
American pole vaulter and 1972 Olympic silver medalist
Footage survives of the event online via “The Highest” as part of Visions of Eight, a stylized documentary film that covered the Munich Olympics. Arthur Penn (known for Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man) directed the segment:
Here are two images I think capture key moments from the event. First, a shot of Nordiwg after he cleared the bar:
And next, an image of Seagren giving his substitute pole to Paulen after completing his final jump. This moment is especially important considering the drama that overtook pole vaulting in Munich:
- East Germany’s Wolfgang Nordwig cleared 5.5 meters (18 feet, ½ inches) to win the pole vault gold medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics, beating the silver medalist Bob Seagren of the United States (5.4 meters; 17 feet, 8½ inches).
- It was the first time the US didn’t win gold in the pole vault at the Olympics, a span of 16 straight Olympiads.
- The event was shrouded in controversy: Seagren’s favored style of pole was banned in the lead-up to the Games. Nordwig, meanwhile, was able to jump with his favorite pole.
- The Complete Book of the Olympics: 2012 Edition by David Wallechinsky and Jaime Loucky (buy on Amazon)
- Los Angeles Times, September 3, 1972 via Newspapers.com