February 12, 1973
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."