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Former Olympic pole-vaulter recalls the thrill of the games
George Mattos, 82, lost his shot at a medal in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics because of the first use of fiberglass poles
George Mattos pole vaults at a Stanford University track meet for San Jose State in the early 1950s. Mattos, now a Rogue Valley resident, participated in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics.
August 01, 2012
By Paul Fattig
George Mattos had a shot at winning a pole-vaulting medal during the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
After all, the Central Point resident was ranked as one of the top 10 pole vaulters in the world by Track and Field News at the time, having finished ninth in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. He had actually tied for sixth but was officially dropped to ninth based on his number of attempts.
Now a retired college music teacher, Mattos, 82, knew it wasn't likely that he could top fellow American Robert Richards, who had won the gold and broke the Olympic record four years earlier. But he figured he could beat Greek vaulter Georgios "George" Roubanis, a student athlete at the University of California at Los Angeles who represented his native country in the Melbourne games.
"I had never lost to him before the Olympics," recalls Mattos of Roubanis. "In Melbourne, everybody was using a steel pole except George Roubanis, who shows up with a Fiberglas pole he had been working secretly with at UCLA.
"With it, he breaks his own personal record and ends up with the bronze," he adds. "I end up fourth. It was definitely unfair, but there was no rule against it."
Roubanis vaulted to 14 feet, 9 inches — 4.5 meters — while Mattos followed with 14 feet, 3.5 inches, or 4.35 meters, that year.
As expected, the gold went to Richards with a vault of 14 feet, 11.5 inches — 4.55 meters — breaking his own 1952 Olympic record by half an inch. Teammate Robert Gutowski was just a whisker behind for the silver at 14 feet, 10.25 inches.
"So I lost the bronze medal to the first Fiberglas pole ever used in the Olympic games," Mattos says, noting the pole-vaulting world record has since topped 20 feet, thanks largely to better poles.
But Mattos, a member of the U.S. Pole Vault Hall of Fame, is not complaining.
"It was fun," he says. "The Olympics changed my life in that they gave me confidence in everything I did. I knew I could do something where I could excel and be one of the best in the world."
He and his wife, Lorraine, who have lived in the Rogue Valley for nearly 20 years, will be watching when the track and field events begin on Friday in London.
"We camp in front of the TV when the Olympics are on," she says.
In fact, they had tickets to the Olympic track and field trials in Eugene earlier this year but didn't attend because George is battling cancer of the prostate.
"We have gone to all the Olympic trials since 1992 until this one," he says. "I didn't feel well enough this time."
But he was there in spirit. Just winning a place on the Olympic team is a triumph, he says.
"I know the feeling you get deep inside, that unbelievable joy," he says. "There is just nothing like it."
The tryouts for both the 1952 and 1956 Olympic trials were held in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
"We had really big crowds," he recalls. "When you are competing in the Olympics, you are concentrating so much on what you are doing that you aren't even aware the people are there. People watching doesn't bother you. You are so intent on your event."
Mattos majored in music, earning a bachelor's degree at San Jose State University and a master's from Chico State University.
"I was split between athletics and music in my college years," he says. "My college professors in music didn't care about my sports, and the PE people didn't care about my music."
Mattos, who stood a little over 5 feet 10 in his prime, was a bit on the short side for vaulters.
"I was at a disadvantage because a lot of pole vaulters were taller than I was," he says. "They could hold higher on the pole."
With a steel pole, there was virtually no bend in the pole, he says.
"You couldn't depend on the catapult action," he says. "You had to muscle it."
Mattos had spent eight years lifting boxes of apricots and prunes back on the family ranch near San Jose, Calif., so he had plenty of upper-body strength.
"I was doing weightlifting all those years but I didn't realize it," he says.
Back at the ranch, he also used a throw a chunk of iron to strengthen his arm.
"The only pole vaulting I ever did before high school was in the eighth grade when the neighbor kids set up a little pole-vault pit," he says. "We used pine saplings to vault with. And I used bamboo all the way through high school."
With that bamboo pole, he vaulted 13 feet in 1947 to win the event in the California state high school track meet, edging out a fellow named Robert Culp, who placed second. Culp went on to become an actor whose credits included starring in the "I Spy" television series.
Like Culp, Mattos had another life beyond pole vaulting, which he gave up in 1960 to focus on teaching music. For 30 years, he was an instructor of music at the College of the Siskiyous in Weed, Calif., where a scholarship now honors his legacy.
"Music was my life work," says Mattos.
In retirement, he was the leader of the Dixie Fat Cats, a Dixieland band in the Rogue Valley in which he played alto saxophone and clarinet.
But every four years he still looks forward to watching some of the world's best athletes soar to new heights.
"A gold medal is something you dream about but it isn't something you expect, unless you are a Bob Richards, the best vaulter in the world at the time," he says. "I was not the best vaulter in the world. I didn't expect to win the gold."
He stops talking for a moment as he reflects on vaulting to the top in the Olympics.
"But it sure would have been nice," he concedes.