During his heyday as one of the world's top pole vaulters, Steve
Smith was a wild man. His hair was long and curly. He wore a
hideous pair of red ski pants, held up by suspenders, as warmups
during meets. When he wasn't vaulting, he surfed. When he wasn't
surfing, he talked. And talked. And talked.
Some things have changed since Smith competed at the 1972
Olympics. He has a wife and two kids, with a third due any day.
He's a real estate agent. His hair is no longer long, and the
red pants are buried deep in a closet. Yet some things never
change. Smith, 46, may be older, but he's not any quieter. The
man who set an indoor world record in '75 by vaulting 18'5" has
a lot to say about track and field. Little of it is good. "Too
often, the politicians dictate what goes," he says. "Those guys
drive Rollses, and I was the guy driving a Volkswagen. Sports is
supposed to be about competition, but sadly it's not."
Smith was picked to win the bronze at the 1972 Games, but the
day before competition began, the International Amateur Athletic
Federation (IAAF) upheld a challenge by the East Germans of the
poles favored by the American vaulters, and Smith and many other
competitors were forced to use their old, heavier poles. "It was
like trying to catch a marlin on a salmon line," he says. "The
difference is huge." Smith jumped poorly and failed to qualify.
Smith joined the professional International Track Association in
'73, but when that organization folded three years later, he
applied to regain amateur status, which was restored in '79. The
U.S. Olympic Committee refused to recognize his reinstatement,
so he had to get a restraining order to force it to let him try
out for the '80 team--an empty gesture since everyone already
knew the U.S. was boycotting the Moscow Games. (Smith made the
honorary team as an alternate.)
Smith's career ended in '83, when his left ankle was badly
injured in a car accident. These days Smith, who lives in
Springfield, Ore., competes in local senior events, mostly as a
sprinter and occasionally as a pole vaulter. (He can clear 15
feet.) "I'm excited about track again," Smith says. "This summer
I'll be taking on Carl Lewis in the 100 in a $5 million
showdown. The man is in trouble."
competition, but it's not."