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His Golden Memories

He didn't take home any medals at the 1932 Olympics, but Pete Clentzos will never forget the wonderful experience of competing at a time when honor was the only real reward.

September 20, 2000|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sixty-eight years later, the number--12 feet, 10 inches--is as unforgettable to Pete Clentzos as the date of his birth. It is the height at which he toppled the crossbar at the 1932 Summer Olympics, erasing any hope for a medal.

"It devastated me," says Clentzos. "It's haunted me all these years." As thousands watched at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the USC pole vaulter had fallen far short of his personal best of 13 feet, 7 inches. He watched from the sidelines as Stanford's Bill Miller vaulted 14 feet, 1 7/8 inches to win gold.

His only explanation: "I had a bad day." Maybe, he muses, it was those steam baths. At the Olympic Village in Baldwin Hills, he'd joined the Japanese athletes in their baths. "They were used to them. I wasn't," he says. Afterward, "I felt like a million dollars, but my timing was off."

In his Pasadena home, Clentzos, now a vigorous 91, is wearing shorts and a tank top to which he has pinned the number 216--the very one that was pinned to his shirt that day 68 years ago. He picks up the pole he used, made of bamboo, wrapped in tape. "Those guys vaulting today, they could never jump with these. Everything was muscle then." The bamboo poles had very little give and so tended to snap; today's are mostly made of fiberglass. "They almost bend double. . . . The fiberglass is almost like a slingshot."

He flexes his muscles, making sure his biceps show for a photograph. He is fit and proud of it, a result of daily workouts at the Pasadena Athletic Club, a carefully monitored diet heavy on fruit and vegetables and regular golf games.

He treasures the old photos and memorabilia from those 1932 Games, which were held at the depth of the Depression, with only 40 nations and 1,500 athletes competing.

And, as though it were yesterday, he remembers marching into the Coliseum with his teammates: the Greek team.

As the American-born son of Greek immigrants, he held dual citizenship and, having missed by a whisker qualifying for the U.S. team, Clentzos accepted Greece's invitation to join its 16-member squad.

It was a tough spot to be in. "I was rooting for my teammates from USC," he says. But they, too, had a bad day, one of the few bright spots being a gold won in the high jump by Trojan Duncan McNaughton--competing for Canada.

Win or lose, those Olympics were a life-altering experience for Clentzos. The Olympic ideal was as yet unsullied. As noted in the official book of that, the 10th, Olympiad, athletes were giving their all "without hope of reward, other than the honor which they may bring to their country, to their sport, and to themselves."

For Clentzos, that spirit endures. "The individual athlete determines the value of the Olympics. Most athletes are sincere, they're genuine, they're loyal. They want to pursue sound mind, sound body, purity. The real value is still intact."

Marching into the Coliseum on opening day of the 1932 Olympics, Clentzos was living a childhood dream. July 30, what a day! A 300-piece band played "The Stars and Stripes Forever" as Vice President Charles Curtis, who officially opened the Games, entered with his entourage. High above the peristyle at the eastern end of the Coliseum, the blare of six trumpets, followed by a 10-blast cannon salute, signaled the start of the Games. With its 1,200-voice chorus, it was for its time quite a spectacle, though hardly on a par with this year's four-hour opening day extravaganza at Sydney.

When the Games ended 16 days later, America had won 40 gold medals, and its heroes included gold medalists Babe Didrikson (javelin throw), USC's Buster Crabbe (400-meter freestyle swim) and Eleanor Holm (100-meter backstroke).

Clentzos recalls in detail the winning heights and distances in track and field, the friends he made and life at the 250-acre Olympic Village where "there were no security problems. Everyone trusted each other."

He smiles as he compares the winning performances of 68 years ago with today's. The pole vault record then was just under 14 feet, 5 inches. Today, it is more than 20 feet. In the long jump, "26 feet was a terrific jump." Today, the record is more than 29 feet. In his day, no high jumper had cleared seven 7 feet. Today, eight 8 feet plus is on the books.

He attributes it to weight training and to improved facilities and equipment, such as tracks with composition surfaces and high-tech poles. When he was competing, pole vaulters landed in a dirt pit--"a pretty hard landing, unless you turned it up with a pitchfork." Now, they land on a foam cushion. With heights soaring, he predicts, "Someday they'll have a landing net, like in a circus."

For some, lifting the ban on professional athletes has dimmed the spirit of the Olympics. Yes, it's changed, Clentzos says, but "that feeling will never be contaminated."

Is the retired coach and teacher watching the Sydney Olympics? You bet. For him, "the Games will never die."

As for that day in 1932, he says with a philosophy born of 91 years of living, "If you shoot for the moon and miss, you're still among the stars."

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