Don Bragg, a pole vaulter who won the 1960 Olympic gold medal as the last world champion in his event to use a metal pole and who later experienced a dramatic fall from glory, died Saturday at his home in Oakley, Calif. He was 83.
He had complications from a stroke several years ago, said his wife, Theresa Bragg.
Bragg was the dominant pole vaulter in the world in the late 1950s and early 1960s, just before his sport was transformed by the advent of the flexible, lightweight fiberglass pole. Using a relatively unyielding aluminum pole, he took advantage of his physique — he nicknamed himself Tarzan — to launch himself over a bar balanced more than 15 feet in the air.
At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, Bragg propelled himself into the air. He was drawn to vaulting as a child, he said, when he swung on ropes he had rigged in the treetops near his family’s home in rural New Jersey. It was also the beginning of his lifelong fascination with Tarzan.
Pole vaulting requires speed, the strength to soar skyward on a 16-foot pole and the agility to twist in the air over the crossbar.
Bragg was a state champion in high school and won the NCAA title in 1955 but failed to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team a year later because of an injury. After graduating from Villanova in 1957, Bragg entered the Army to maintain his standing as an amateur athlete and preserve his eligibility for the Olympics.
In Philadelphia on Feb. 13, 1959, he cleared 15 feet, 9½ inches to break Cornelius Warmerdam’s 16-year-old world record.
At the Olympic tryouts in July 1960, before a national television audience and 65,000 people at California’s Stanford Stadium, Bragg vaulted 15 feet, 9¼ inches to win the meet and eclipse Warmerdam’s 17-year-old outdoor world record of 15 feet, 7¾ inches.
Two months later, at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Bragg “was the Cassius Clay of track and field,” David Maraniss wrote in his 2008 book “Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World.” Clay would later become known as Muhammad Ali.
“Day and night for two weeks,” Maraniss wrote, Bragg’s fellow Olympians “heard him beating his chest” and practicing his Tarzan yell. In restaurants, he sang “O Sole Mio” with Roman waiters. A Life magazine feature, for which Bragg posed wearing a Tarzan-style loincloth, called him “by far the most uninhibited Roman visitor of 1960.”
In 95-degree heat, Bragg won the pole vault by soaring 15 feet, 5⅛ inches to set an Olympic record.
After he was awarded his gold medal, he let out his Tarzan yell.
A change to the sport
He continued to win competitions for the next year, but in early 1962, his records were broken by a new generation of vaulters using fiberglass poles that could fling them higher. It had taken 22 years for the pole vault record to advance from 15 feet to 16, but only 18 months to go from 16 feet to 17. (The current record, held since 2014 by Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie, is 20 feet, 2½ inches.)
“These guys aren’t vaulters; they’re catapultists,” Bragg said.
He argued in vain to have fiberglass poles banned from the sport, then retired.
“I worked for 10 years, long hours every day, to become a champion,” he told The Washington Post in 1963. “Sure, I’m jealous, but I also have good reasons for not liking the fiberglass pole ... when you get beat by a gimmick, it hurts.”
Donald George Bragg was born May 15, 1935, in Penns Grove, N.J. His father was a carpenter, his mother a homemaker.
Bragg was a standout football player in high school and sometimes competed in the decathlon, participating in 10 separate track-and-field events. Hoping one day to play Tarzan on the screen, he sang in the chorus at Villanova to develop his voice.
After the Olympics, Bragg did in fact begin work on a Tarzan movie in Jamaica, but the project was shelved over a copyright dispute.
“I hate to say it, but everything since 1960 has been downhill,” Bragg admitted to Sports Illustrated in 1980. “That’s a fact that exists. To be obsessed by a goal, then go get it, what can top that?”
In 1996, he was inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame.