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ATHENS 2004

U.S. Pole Position Is Secure With 1-2 Finish

Mack and Stevenson win the gold and silver. Americans also took two top spots at Sydney.

August 28, 2004|Mike Penner | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — On a night when two American women failed to complete the simple exchange of a baton, two American men tightened the United States' newfound grip on Olympic pole vaulting.

So which was the bigger story?

While media swarmed Marion Jones, wanting to know how she couldn't get the relay baton to Lauryn Williams in time Friday night, Tim Mack and Toby Stevenson sat in a mostly empty news conference room discussing the gold and silver medals they had just won in the men's pole vault final, Mack's gold coming with an Olympic record -- 19 feet 6 1/4 inches -- attached.

One of the few reporters sitting in the audience made note of the discrepancy.

"Negative press is always sought after more than positive press," said Stevenson, who cleared 19-4 1/2 to clinch the silver medal. "But here is a big positive thing coming for the U.S. -- another gold and silver medal in the pole vault. A repeat of 2000, with Nick Hysong and Lawrence Johnson.

"Good things will always come to good people in the end. I think it will get out that we did just a great job. And we're considerably good people. We represented the U.S. very well here in Athens ... and it will come out."

The word is impossible to ignore. After Bob Seagren's gold medal in Mexico City in 1968, the U.S. went 32 years without winning the pole vault. The balance of power in track and field's most perilous event swung to Europe, with East Germany, Poland, the Soviet Union and France taking turns on the top of the podium from 1972 to 1996.

Hysong broke the drought in Sydney, with Johnson taking the silver to give the U.S. its first 1-2 pole vault finish since Don Bragg and Ron Morris in 1960.

Friday, Mack and Stevenson did it again, with Mack eclipsing Stevenson in the standings -- and breaking the Olympic record -- on his last attempt. Bronze medalist Giuseppe Gibilisco of Italy, the 2003 world champion, was already out of the competition at 19-2 1/2 .

Stevenson, thinking he already had the championship clinched, shook his head in seeming disbelief after watching Mack clear the bar. Stevenson had one chance to pull even, but he brought the bar down just as he went over it.

"When Tim went over it, you know, I wasn't expecting it," Stevenson said. "But, I wasn't not expecting it [either], because he's a great jumper. He's got that bar in him for sure, obviously. And higher bars.

"It fired me up. It actually gave me energy to jump. I'm back at the runway, telling myself, 'Just do it, you've jumped this high before, you can jump it again, and let's get that gold medal.' Unfortunately, it didn't work for me, but I ended up with the silver."

Mack, who placed sixth at the 2003 world championships, described his victory as "pretty unbelievable. I mean, I cannot put it into words."

With the gold medal clinched, Mack took three shots at 19-8 1/4 , trying to join pole vaulting's prestigious six-meter club.

But with his energy sapped and his legs tightening, Mack missed three times, leaving the track to appreciative fans who stayed until the end of a four-hour competition.

Mack, 31, said the gold medal has been his goal for four years, as any of his e-mail buddies could attest.

"I don't know if I should give out my e-mail [address]," he said, "but I'll just say it was 'GoldNAthens' and I've had it for four years....

"I guess I'm going to have to change it after tonight."

Stevenson was asked if consecutive 1-2 finishes for the U.S. at the Olympics signaled a new trend in men's pole vaulting.

"For a while, there were five of us in the top 12 in the world, during the last two or three years," Stevenson said. "And we've got a bunch of young kids coming up that are jumping really high and have the potential to jump even higher.

"I think that along with myself and Tim, we've kind of opened the door in the U.S. by vaulting high and making it fun again. We're not so stoic out there. We're out there having a great time, you can see that we're great competitors but we're all great friends.

"I don't know if we're going to be a powerhouse, but there's a lot of great jumpers coming up behind us."

Stevenson grinned.

"But they will have to come through us to be the best vaulters," he said.

Mack nodded.

"Yeah," he added, "I've still got some years left."

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