Athletics

From noon to night: The incredible record-breaking pole vault final

In October 1964, Tokyo hosted their first Olympic Games. To celebrate, Tokyo 2020 will bring you some of the most incredible and historic moments that took place 56 years ago. In the latest part of the series, we take a look at the incredible men’s pole vault final, which was the longest in the event’s Olympic history.

The background

Pole vault and the summer Olympics have a relationship that goes back to the inception of the Games, with the event featuring in every edition since 1896. But even with such a rich, long history, the Tokyo 1964 men’s competition is the type historians cherish and talk about every time Olympic pole vaulting is mentioned.

Heading into the 1964 Olympics, the United States were the undisputed pole vault kings, having won the gold medal at every Games since 1896. And with world record holder Fred Hansen leading the charge, another gold medal was almost inevitable.

Well, almost.

Hansen had only broken onto the pole vault scene in 1964 and one of his compatriots - Brian Sternberg - may have been considered better placed to fight for gold had fate not put paid to his chances. Sternberg - who had set new world records on multiple occasions - broke his neck in a trampolining accident, leaving him paralysed.

TOKYO 1964 PIECE POLE VAULT 3

The moment

The qualification event took place on 15 October with pole vaulters from as many as 20 nations hoping to make their name on the world's greatest sporting stage.

Hansen, along with fellow Americans John Pennel and Billy Pemelton, easily cleared the 4.60m bar to make it to the final along with 18 other competitors.

Two days later, the final took place, beginning at around 1 p.m. in the afternoon in Tokyo, with the expectation that it would be over in three to four hours.

However, this was wishful thinking.

One after the other, athletes bowed out of the final as the height progressed from 4.40m to 4.95m. In the end, only four vaulters remained: Hansen and three German athletes – Wolfgang Reinhardt, Klaus Lehnertz and Manfred Preussger.

Initially, the height of the bar was being increased by either 10 or 20cm, but as the final progressed, the officials decided to raise it by only 5cm at a time, thereby extending the length of the final.

After all four finalists cleared 5m, the height was again raised by five centimetres. Hansen decided to pass the height but Reinhardt cleared the 5.05m bar while both of his compatriots bowed out.

Now all that stood between Hansen and a gold medal was Reinhardt and a bar set at 5.1m.

Remarkably, even though the final had lasted over seven hours, Hansen had only vaulted four times heading into his final duel with his German opponent. The sun had gone down and the stadium was submerged in the brightness of lights, but someone was hoping to shine even brighter.

Both Hansen and Reinhardt failed with their first two attempts, with the German visibly exhausted due to the draining length of the final.

At around 10 p.m. local time on 17 October, with the temperature dropping below 20 degree celsius, everything came down to one jump from Hansen who needed to clear 5.1m to prevent Reinhardt from clinching gold.

Hansen vaulted cleanly over the bar and Reinhardt could not replicate the American’s feat.

After over seven hours, during which the colour of the sky had changed from blue to black, Hansen had clinched gold in the longest pole vault final in Olympic history.

TOKYO 1964 PIECE POLE VAULT 2

What happened next

The USA’s dominance of Olympic pole vault continued for another edition, but was broken in 1972 after a huge controversy involving defending champion Bob Seagren who was forced to compete with an unfamiliar pole after the new banana pole was banned from Olympic competition.

Hansen’s gold at the Tokyo 1964 Games remained his finest achievement and guaranteed him a place among the greatest athletes in pole vault history. As for Reinhardt and Lehnertz, the two Germans achieved something no one else from their country had done before - Olympic silver and bronze pole vault medals.

The Tokyo 1964 Olympics pole vault final was unique in many aspects, from being the first to be contested with fibreglass poles to the incredible length of the final. But while fibreglass poles continue to be used to this day, the second unique factor of the final is unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon.